Monday, March 24, 2014

Surf’s Up, Man

There’s pure magic in rolling over the Bay Bridge for the very first time with 3200 miles behind you on a bright September morning.  With the waters below all gem-flecked , redolent of warm salt and promise and the fabled city ahead  gleaming like Oz , it’s easy to feel that all hearts must open and all wines flow.

   It’s quite another matter to drop off the 5 into the San Fernando Valley in search of a place called Chatsworth. There I was in the early autumn of 1976, having driven from Phippsburg , Maine, looking for Lurline Avenue and the nascent animation studios of Zany Eminators rumored to have set up shop up in one of many Industrial Parks scattered among the cul-de-sacs, mini-malls and even a wee bit of widely scattered horse pasture that made up The Valley.
   When I thought of  “The Valley” prior to that morning, I pictured – as I’m sure many of you do – Miss Barbara Stanwyck standing on her ranch house porch, cradling a shotgun and gazing wistfully off toward the distant, lavender mountains.  Turns out that’s a different Valley entirely and this one, later to become world famous for its unique breed of Girl, had it’s own bizarre charm as the obvious location for such 70’s TV staples as Adam 12 and CHIPS. Nobody told me the place was the epicenter of porn production in the US and, whereas I might very well have run across John Holmes or Marilyn Chambers or Harry Reems, the only celebrity I encountered that fall was Lorne Greene, standing beside me at the 7-11 on De Soto. There were no sidewalks, only road shoulder and parking lots, in one of which I actually heard a fellow say that the surf was up, man, and he was heading to Malibu. This made a deeper impression than rubbing elbows with Lorne Greene.

   The Eminators had converted some 4000 square feet of industrial garage into a sort of multi-level, multi-function loft jungle of plywood and 2 x 4’s. There was a kitchen area, common space with plywood dining table, a small room that housed the two- storey, home-made multi-plane camera, and the flop-house sleeping area above for the transients like myself passing through.  Although I painted my share of cells, it soon became apparent that my true calling was chief cook and bottle washer, transforming the daily gleanings from the dumpsters behind Ralph’s into some pretty high class dinners for the eight to twelve misfits in residence. I was a vegetarian at the time with a limited repertoire - mostly quiche, artichokes (pilfered from the freeway fields ) with Hollandaise sauce and spaghetti – but the crowds, in their youthful lack of refinement, raved.  And lots of “Toby’s Cheesecake Deluxe”, a favorite of the Zanies, who provided the recipe I use to this day.

 Funds soon became tight and, after pouring over the classifieds and wasting an afternoon at a sales seminar for vinyl windows, I quickly realized I was no more employable as the new, California me than I had been as the old, Back East me. Serendipity arrived in the form of a man who came to the door looking for “the artists” as, I guess, we’d become known in the Industrial Park. He wanted someone to draw “Rapidograph style” renderings of photo-finishes from Hollywood Park. These would be etched into Lucite paper-weights and given to the winning jockeys.  Twice a week he would arrive with photos and pick up my terrible, terrible drawings.  The thought that these Lucite chunks probably still exist is vaguely unsettling. Some of us took jobs with the outfit three doors down that stretched and framed bogus, Korean “oil paintings” of New England covered bridges and such. I ran bits of molding through a band-saw for weeks until the owners absconded in the dead of night.

 By Thanksgiving I noticed Angelinos wearing scarves and pre-Uggs and those ubiquitous, drab parkas popular at the time with the ratty, fake fur around the hood. Winter wardrobe for Winter’s sake, it seemed to me.  The Industrial Park was deserted by Tuesday morning and strangely foreboding winds picked up, inundating the acres of pavement with vast herds of tumbleweeds. By late afternoon there was heavy smoke in the air and as dusk settled an angry, orange glow backlit the hilltops surrounding the Valley.  Neighborhoods were being evacuated. We turned on the radio; no one mentioned Lurline Avenue.  I stood in the dark on the roof and watched the fires blaze all around and toward us, the ring tightening. Tiny, flickering lights on the distant ridge tops would converge and, eventually, a bit of the flame in that area would diminish, only to rise again with the same puff of wind I’d just felt on my face.  I didn’t sleep that night but stayed on the roof trying to imagine a route out through the burning ring of fire. It rained black ash for a week.
By Christmas the jig was up. A veritable army of State and City inspectors showed up, alerted by the dome on the roof and the prevalent gossip about a bunch of artist kids living in an industrial garage in Chatsworth. Hefty bribes would have done the trick, had any of us recognized that this was what they were after. Had any of us had the funds for hefty bribes. The Zanies folded their tents and headed north to start over in the more benign climes of the Bay Area . I flew home for the holidays without ever having seen downtown LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood, Venice Beach or MacArthur Park, where someone left the cake out in the rain….

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From the Peripatetic to the Pathetic

Movin’ on Up 

Union Street, Brooklyn
And I might have stayed on Union, just down wind of the Gowanus, nestled in the protective arms of my own little posse of Goodfellas, had it not been for an offer from my Father that I couldn’t refuse.  Some ten years earlier, in the 70’s, Dad had used a windfall to buy a small pied-a-terre in one of New York’s most famous and elegant co-ops, the Osborne on West 57th Street.  A few steps East of the Arts Students League the Osborne was inhabited primarily by celebrities from the Arts: Lenny Bernstein was there, and Bobby Short and Craig Claiborne, Fran Lebowitz, Van Cliburn, Lynne Redgrave….You get the picture. 
As a young man, back in the day, my father had accepted the post of Director of the New York State Council on the Arts from Nelson Rockefeller, so he knew all these people – he’d had the distinction of teaching Maestro Bernstein how to play “Glow Worm” upside down and backwards at the piano – and no doubt felt that they were his sort of neighbors when he went looking for an address. But now he was weary of the City; he wanted out and the market was too soft to sell.  Needless to say, sublets at the Osborne were frowned upon – only immediate family members were allowed to assume ownership – and so it fell to me to take over his $500 monthly maintenance fee. Which was $50 less than I was paying Marcella over on Union Street….and I was doing a favor for my Father which only I could do.
A few weeks before my move, I got a call from a Mr. King about painting his apartment.  He had a duplex in one of the City’s premier, landmark buildings on the West Side, he began. Once it became clear he wasn’t referring to The Dakota, I broke in to ask, “This wouldn’t be The Osborne, would it?”

“Why, indeed it is.” He said, “Do you know it?”

“As a matter of fact,” I replied, “I’m moving in next week, but it won’t reflect on your estimate!”
The Osborne Lobby
And thus began my tenancy on West 57th. Needless to say, I never felt I belonged there. I sensed a bizarre alienation when,  going out to the newsstand that first Sunday morning for the paper I found the neighborhood empty and silent but for a gaggle or two of Midwest farm families from the nearby hotels aimlessly, futilely, searching for someplace to eat breakfast.  Never having lived in a “doorman” building, just figuring out how to acknowledge the poor men dressed to the nines in the raiment of petty tyrants occupied a good portion of my first few days. Setting aside the whole notion of the actual opening for me of the door – which I would spend the next few years trying to avoid - If I’m stepping out, say, for a pack of smokes and I expect to be gone for all of four minutes, must I say Hello on the way back in as well as the way out? If I’m in and out a dozen times a day, well, I can’t just walk past the guy with no acknowledgement, but twenty to thirty “Hellos” – even interspersed with the occasional “Howdy” or “Howyadoin” – seemed just plain untenable and I’d be damned if, as a fellow working stiff, I were to fall to the depths of the “Grunt” or worse, the absolute brush-off. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to arrive in the lobby to find the shift had changed! This abashed self-consciousness reached the level of grand comedy when I started Mr. King’s job.
 On that fateful morning I donned my work clothes, gathered up an armload of rags and drop-cloths and headed down to the lobby. The Osborne had two sets of elevators, one on either end of the lobby, servicing different parts of the building. As I walked past the doorman, pausing to say good morning and tell him that I was beginning a job for Mr. King, I paid little attention to the troubled look on his face and completely ignored whatever it was he was trying to tell me in Portugese-English. On my second trip, though, I was stopped by the Super who drew me aside into the mail room to politely ask that I use the service elevator. He was visibly chagrinned at having to accost my Father’s son, and I was mortified that it hadn’t occurred to me that, at least in this guise as housepainter, I should be crossing in the basement with the rest of the staff and not mucking up the famous lobby! And so it went for the next few weeks. I would come down in my street clothes, cross the lobby to the other bank of elevators, change in to my work clothes chez King and use the service elevator and basement for the rest of the day. The guys in the basement – all these buildings have hordes of guys in gray in the basement – thought I was just a laugh riot…..They’d never seen anything like me before.
Rubber Rodeo
Worse than the relentless “hellos” was the need to ring the doorbell after hours. I’d stumble home at three in the morning from seeing Rubber Rodeo with Marilyn And The Movie Stars and Neon Leon at CBGB’s or Max’s and find the big front doors locked. I’d ring the bell and wait. Sometimes it would take all of ten minutes and I’d know I’d woken the poor man up or gotten him off the john.  If he peeked and saw it was me, he might show up without the jacket and braid, just in his short-sleeves. It might have been hours since the last tenant came in and he’d try to hide the fact he’d fallen asleep at his post. One night, toward the end of my Osborne period – the end, in fact, of my post-youth decade in New York City – I arrived at the lobby at some God-forsaken hour. A youthful doorman in full regalia let me in immediately.  As I waited for the elevator we talked for a minute about the Mets and just as the doors began to part he walked smartly back to his post, fully alert and ready to serve. It’s three in the morning, I am alone in the Osborne lobby. The doors open and the floor of the elevator is literally carpeted with twenty dollar bills.
This doesn’t happen in Brooklyn.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dumbo to Gowanus: Olde Breuckelen part Deux

Ahh, Gowanus… your waters reglitterized by an influx of earnest young arts professionals and gallerists, how fondly I recall strolling along your bucolic banks in early Spring amid the dimpled rising of sewer salmon and toilet trout.

Some thirty years ago, driven out of Dumbo by rising rents, the relentless pounding of the machine shop below and the squealing of the B train a scant ten feet from my bed, I packed up my Gladstone bag, my box of paint, my box of kitchen, turned my back toward Manhattan and headed up the hill in search of affordable space.  Past the immaculate headquarters of the Jehovas with its polished sidewalk, spotless windows and gaggles of clean young men sporting short-sleeved dress shirts with pocket protectors. Through the Heights – past Love Lane, an address I always wanted but could never afford – past Atlantic Avenue and Little Lebanon, over the manhole leading to the Underground Railroad, through Cobble Hill and into Carroll Gardens. Taking a random left off Court Street I came eventually upon a storefront with a handful of apartment rentals taped to the plate glass window.  A vast man under a tiny Hamburg sat at a wooden desk inside; he waved me in.
Big Pussy had just the spot for me, he said, after a brief introductory conversation and, grabbing a ring of keys we were off in his white caddy into the nether depths of Gowanus. “She’s got a couple three boys,” he tells me, referring to my future landlady,” but she ain’t got no phone. So we’ll stop by, see if she likes you, if you like the place. Maybe say hello to the neighbors. You get the third floor.”  We turned left on to Union Street. I noticed there seemed to be a beat cop on each corner, something I’d never seen, even in Soho, and quite a few young men out washing and waxing cars or sitting on stoops, smoking … middle of the morning on a weekday.
The house itself was indistinguishable from others on the block: three stories, Archie Bunker-like with striped aluminum window awnings and a brick and granite stoop up to the second floor entrance. Big Pussy and I get out of his Cadillac and all activity on the street ceases as all eyes are turned upon us. I notice the twitching of second floor curtains up and down the block. A flurry of rapid Italian passes between Pussy and another man in a wifebeater T, who nods in the direction of the basement door under the stoop and yells out, “Marcella! Get over here….”
Marcella - she’s got a black eye -  leads us in to the basement living area, a chaos of lurid Catholicism and clutter, redolent of dried basil and old laundry, every surface covered and the boys a tangled heap of shrieking nuggies in the gloom. She yells at the boys that she’s going out and leads me and Big Pussy back outside, up the stoop and into a high-gloss, beige corridor and the stairway to the third floor. Marcella asks me about what I do, do I have a job. Big Pussy pipes up that I’m an artist. Like Michaelangelo, he tells her. I tell Marcella I work construction. She is skeptical. The lock on the apartment door is broken – not to worry, Marcella says, everything around here is safe…. I am skeptical.  The place is standard shotgun style, eat-in kitchen at the back overlooking the poured concrete back yard, middle “living” room and bedroom in front with a big closet with a window. Three inch matted, deep brown shag throughout. Pink, faux marble vanity with “gold” fixtures; $500 a month, two months up front. Back on the stoop, Big Pussy and Marcella fall into a seemingly heated conversation in Italian with plenty of sweeping gesture encompassing both me and, it seems, the immediate neighborhood.  Grabbing my wrist, Marcella says, “You don’t mind, I take you to see the Capo”…. Big Pussy grins at me, rolls his eyes, follows us across the street to another stoop.  Everyone has put down their rags, hoses and buckets. The second floor curtains part again and I can see the grandmas peering back out at me. The neighbors are beginning to drift down toward us, sizing me up.
An older man with cane and suspenders sits at the top of the stoop. “Prego, Don Antonio…” she begins. He interrupts, staring at me, “You an artist? Waddaya, paint pitchers?”  I am struck momentarily dumb by his prescience. I open my mouth, reaching blindly for the right response. Don Antonio cuts back in, “Kids today is garbage,” he says, looking right through me, “You don’t look like garbage.”  I stammer my thanks. “We got a good coupla blocks here,” he tells me, the small crowd nodding,
“ Family. No garbage. You know the Cosa Nostra?” This entirely out of left field; what could possibly be the right response to this question? “ You know Sammy Persico? Sammy the Snake? I know all the guys. I was Capo ….” He chatters at Pussy and Marcella for a second, the congregation eyes me up and down, tattoos flashing on sweaty biceps, smoldering cigarettes adangle from every lip. “ You’re ok, kid. Look after Marcell, she ain’t got nobody.” Don Antonio wraps up the audience. I’m scared shitless about what I may have just gotten myself into.
 Of course, I took the place. It soon became apparent that the wave of emigrating yuppies, as we called them then, had spread well throughout Cobble Hill and, to a lesser extent, Carroll Gardens, but had not yet reached the downhill end of Union. Just a half a block west of the fabled Canal, with it’s funky Union Street bridge superstructure, in the shadow of the Casket Company, I was to be the first outsider to move on to the block. Whereas these third floor apartments had been hitherto reserved for the Nannas, the early Eighties were hard times and this was the first to be let out to the likes of me.
I never learned what may have become of the grandma who should have resided there; perhaps she went with the boys’ father. I turned the bedroom into my studio and threw a single mattress down on the closet floor. Marcella never bothered me and I’m pretty sure I never “looked after” her. Rarely she might come upstairs to ask my help with something. She might look at the painting I was working on and ask why I didn’t put people or something in it, “Like Spider Man, maybe. One my boys, he likes to draw Spider Man. Maybe you could show him. Show him to draw more better, you’re the artist…” After a year or so Marcella came up and asked, “ It’s not for me, you know, “ she says, “but the neighbors and people, they wanna know, you know, you got a girlfriend?” I stammer. I blush. “You know,” she says, “Nobody never sees you coming home with a girl, ya know?”  I thought of all the twitching, third floor curtains up and down my route to the F train, the cop on the corner, the lounging, indolent street soldiers.  “It’s not so easy getting a girl to come down to Gowanus,” I told her, “but I sure hope to soon.”

All in all, Gowanus has come a long way and who knows where it will go in the future…..