I will close out this week with something from sorta-kinda from my new book. This is an early version of one of the chapters from my soon-to-be-released book, a memoir called Shader.
This chapter tells the story of how I fell in love with New York City. It also has a lot more poetry world-related stuff, so it makes sense to me to share it here in BAP blog.
Wednesday, January 1, 1992. I greet the New Year from Derek’s cold concrete floor on East 37th Street. Black drapes enshroud the place in darkness and silence, save red lights and random bleeps from a wall of electronics.
I’m still stoned from last night, where I helped Derek DJ a party for Skidmore students who rented a space on Jane Street. At one point, we played “Walking on Sunshine” three times in a row while the party host, dressed in tan khakis and a rugby shirt, stood beside our booth, arms crossed.
We suspected cocaine was involved.
Derek just moved to New York City. He called his apartment “The Studio” because he’s interested in working in a recording studio, but also because it’s an illegal sublet and his place was zoned commercially. In one corner sits a mixing board, speakers, microphones, and a set of electronic drums; in another huge, sealed bins filled with pot.
Someday the next Fear of a Black Planet or Ride the Lightning will be recorded in his bathroom-less, 30-by-30-foot room in Murray Hill. For now, Derek sells pot and DJs parties to pay the rent.
Everything he says about New York makes me want to move there more. He’s played Sega against a Beastie Boy. He saw the Fat Boys record their cover of “Wipeout” in the studio he helps run.
I may be the one who graduated college, but in my mind it’s Derek who’s made it. By my fifth year of college, Derek had landed a modeling job and ended up on a billboard above a V.I.M. Jeans store on Lower Broadway.
We stood across the street once, admiring a 20-foot tall image of him. Two skinny models curled up on the floor around at his feet, reaching up his legs like he was a god.
And I thought to myself: I wear a tie to a proofreading job at Arthur Andersen. I make 11 dollars an hour. Derek gets to do modeling shoots, bang hot chicks and smoke all the pot he wants. Punk rock and hair metal have died on the vine, Freddie Mercury is dead, Nirvana has the number 1 album and the golden age of rap is over. And me? I’m still in fucking Philadelphia, checking the grammar on Arthur Andersen accounting reports.
Walter Benjamin uses the phrase “profane illumination” to describe surrealism, how to place language before meaning or even God is necessary for visions of the future.
Maybe it was time for my own surreal and profane illuminations.
Derek subletted his room from Lisa, a thirtysomething party planner whose 4,000-square-foot loft on the other side of the floor doubles as a space for Greek weddings and bachelor parties. This might explain the presence of the swan-and-cherub water fountain that gurgled in the middle of the living room, surrounded by Styrofoam Doric columns.
Before we left for the party, I used the hallway bathroom, and a woman dressed only in a French maid apron, and nothing more, was waiting outside. With a whip.
“Do you know where Saint Mark’s Poetry Project is?”
We’re playing Street Fighter on his 50-inch TV. The punch sounds pipe through studio speakers. He starts to kick my ass before I can get my bearing with the controller. We shout above the 8-bit din of karate chops and percussed punches.
“Never heard of it," Derek says. "Sounds like a place where pussy poet-types like you go hang out.”
As much as I’d like to stay and play video games all day, sitting around stoned in The Studio gets old. Leonard, a poet who owned a bookstore in Philly, told me about the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project. He said they host an all-day reading on New Year’s, a marathon event where anyone who’s anyone in New York poetry comes to read.
Allen Ginsberg will be there, Leonard said. Others I’d seen in movies and books I read outside of my college classes will be there as well—John Giorno, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll.
I want to spend the day out on my own—to find my tribe, as hokey as it may sound. I want to spend the day as a poet in New York.
“Could you just point me in the right direction?” I ask Derek.
“It must be on St. Mark’s Place, so that’s easy,” he says. “Go out the door, make a left. Then make a left on Third Avenue. Keep going until you hit St. Mark’s and make another left. St. Mark’s Place is only a two or three blocks long, so it should be there somewhere.”
Of course now I know directions Derek just gave me were wrong. But please remember the internet wasn’t invented yet, no Mapquest, no GPS. So cut us both a break.
Also: people from New Jersey don’t bring maps to New York. Jersey people think a city map comes with their brains or appears there once they pass Exit 12. Or we tell the cab drivers where to go.
It’s the Bridge and Tunnel Credo and we abide by it. Everyone I’ve ever met from the Midwest, for example, lands in New York armed with spiral bound atlases, tour guides, tip sheet printouts from friends on the cheapest beer or Indian food.
Jersey people just show up and ask other Jersey people. Or we tail Midwesterners.
So I go outside and sneak along the Queens Midtown Tunnel traffic on 37th Street, take a left downtown on Third Avenue. Murray Hill is by no means scenic, I know this now, but to my mind back then it was a stroll along the Champs Elysees.
The bodegas and doorman buildings and taxis in dormant midtown, the closed-up curry places on 29th, the large intersections at 23rd and 14th, all of it was part of my own production of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, everyone sing-talking, and I was Catherine Deneuve, ingénue from the provinces.
“Everything becomes an allegory for me,” Baudelaire writes. That was the life I wanted to lead. I want to allow things to happen to me, to be the flâneur, the dandy who wanders the streets, open to each experience what comes. I wanted to allow myself to get lost, to make mistakes, to loaf around.
I wanted to lead an allegory-filled life. I was 22 years old and walking in New York on my own.
I get to Saint Mark’s Place and I turn left and I start to look for the words "Poetry" or "Project," or anyone with a piece of paper reciting a poem. Nothing. Halfway down the block, I start to get nervous. Where is this place? Am I lost? Why is St. Mark’s Place deserted?
It’s New Year’s Day, 1992, and I figure real New Yorkers are still sleeping or snorting lines of coke in their apartments. Why did I go out into the cold only to get lost twenty blocks away? And why did I get stoned before doing this?
The tinnitus from last night’s acid jazz rings in my ear. Last night, after the countdown, I flirted with a beautiful Jewish girl. I knew she was Jewish because she asked me if I was Jewish. She only dated Jewish boys, she said.
I’m not Jewish, I told her, but I’d be willing convert. For her.
That’s all it took for us to make out for a few seconds behind Derek’s DJ table. She agreed to meet me for coffee that night at a bakery on the Upper East Side. Telling her I was going to a poetry reading the next day only made me seem more mysterious, I’d like to think.
As she wrote down the bakery’s address on a napkin, I imagined sitting beside her, twirling her brown curls, telling her I was already circumcised. It would be erotic in a sophisticated, Woody Allen movie sorta way.
I spotted a building in the middle of the block, its bottom half painted white. Down a half-flight of steps sat a circle of people, each holding what looked like manuscripts on their laps. This must be the place, I thought. The New Year’s Day Marathon Poetry Reading!
It didn’t surprise me that the attendees were mostly older men, or that half were black and the other half hippy white guys. This was the scene at most poetry readings. I spotted a lady in a Holly Hobbie dress who stood beside a coffee urn atop the table in the back.
She wiped the drip catcher with a paper towel vigorously, like it was a precious stone.
I found the first free folding chair and sat down and focused on the reading. Across from me a man was reading a poem.
“I am now clean more than 60 days,” he said. “I know I can make it. I know I can.”
I listened some more. And then I thought to myself that the work there seemed, well, pedestrian. It was hard for me not to be critical, having just taken my first graduate poetry workshop at Rutgers.
The poem from the next person, his voice Barry White-deep, also had a daily affirmation quality. Where are the metaphor and images, the figurative language? I thought.
I started to grimace. Was this as good as the work gets at St. Mark’s Poetry Project? What’s going on? Here I am on poetry holy ground and I am thinking, I can do better than these guys.
“Did you sign up for the reading yet?”
Holly Hobbie stood next to me at the coffee urn. We’re taking a break and everyone’s smoking out on St. Mark’s. The drip catcher is still attached to her hand, and she’s still buffing the steel.
“I didn’t know you could sign up,” I said.
This is my chance to be discovered, I think. See, I say to myself, being a flâneur can have its benefits. Like every aspiring poet in their early twenties, I just happen to have a printout of My Entire Collected Works in my backpack.
I start to think: how many minutes is the set? Is it one poem or two?
“This a surprise,” I said. “I thought the reading was only for famous poets.”
“Famous?” she said. “This is open for all of our clients.”
Why would the St. Mark’s Poetry Project have clients?
As Holly explained to me the format of the reading, I concluded that this is not in fact St. Mark’s Poetry Project, that this was another place entirely. This was a place for people in drug recovery. The people here reading their poems were clients, drug addicts sharing their work to each other as they fought to stay sober—a particularly hard thing to do for some after New Year’s Eve, Holly pointed out.
The coffee urn gurgles, lets out steam. I take a cup, fill it with sugar and milk. Barry White voice guy points me in the direction of the Poetry Project.
When I was 22, those whole blocks in New York become an allegory for a wonderful confusion, a confusion of streets and cars and possibility, a chaos that calms me down. This is what life, what a city, should be.
I found the place I was looking for, and it was only when I got there I realized the name of the place used the same word Derek and his building mates used: Project. The Poetry Project. This seemed significant to me then. It was so warm inside, with food and coffee and poems.
It was only when I reached my destination that I felt every missed connection, every day feeling out of place, without words, every song I felt spoke to me, every poem I heard read into the evening, was part of the same flâneurian experience. Things added up to something.
Lying on the rug off to the side of the Saint Mark’s stage that day, all of the poems seemed addressed to me.
It was all felt as one, a single poem.
That mistaken place on St. Mark’s, I found out, is the site of the Electric Circus discotheque, where Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground happened in 1966. It is also where I thought I would have my New York poetry debut in 1992.
That night, I walked uptown to the bakery to meet the Jewish girl, and I ended up talking to another girl by mistake. She was going to meet someone on a blind date, and thought I was the guy. Her date came and the Jewish girl never showed up.
I went back to Derek’s and recorded crappy demos all night.
It all made sense to me, all part of the same poem, the same song, which I would never get around to finishing.