Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Life of an Artist


Tompkins Square Park was a little on the overlooked side, hell the entire neighborhood was, as were many in the city during those days. But Koch was going to revitalize it, there were signs of encroaching gentrification, not the galleries, not the locally run stores that we would frequent after brunch, not the closing of the baths on 8th St, no it was becoming about real estate, money, power and the mayor’s image. Time to clean up the East Village.

There was that one Wigstock that we attended, they were always fabulous, we were there till the end, just a few homeless people, us and Lady Bunny, she was alone sweeping the area around the band shell, the band shell that would be demolished shortly thereafter because people were using it as a place to sleep, or that day when I was home painting, the buzzer rang, it was Phoenix, he was extremely agitated, hurry come on, the city is here with bulldozers, they are evicting the squatters, but the icing on the cake was when the Gap store opened on St Marks and Second Avenue.

The landlords were away at their summerhouse, Jason and I would keep an eye on the brownstone till one of the sons came in a few weeks. One night outside across the street about forty cops in riot gear lined up, their commander was on his walkie talkie awaiting orders to proceed, they were going to raid the park. It was tense and the picture of force was brutal, I played Piggies by the Beatles full blast, stuck the speaker in the window. The got the call to withdraw, but they would be back.

The park became an encampment for the homeless, it was known as Tent City. I never felt at risk there or in any danger, it was actually kind of cool, the city would say that it was filled with drug dealers, sellers, buyers, I mean if you are selling to the homeless the profit margin isn’t going to be that great. These were people looking for somewhere to live, what about the poor?

Tent City grew and became just another facet of the neighborhood. I began befriending some of the street people, there was that one woman who would collect cans and bottles for redemption, she was obviously schizophrenic, she would speak in a man’s voice, respond in a woman’s, her rants about sexual abuse and family hatred, if I heard her out front screaming I would rush down with our empties, one of her personalities would politely thank me, then she would continue screaming.

Eddie and Ray were going to rent a house on Fire Island for the summer, asked if we would like to join in, sure, why not, Jason thought it would be a good idea, get out of the city, hit the beach, rest, I had never been to Fire Island. He made the payments, we never attended the house meetings that they held, it was a summer rental what rules would we need, get to the island, go to the beach, relax, no there were many rules.

We missed the meetings because we were doing coke, still it seemed like Ray was just being an ass, we paid the money, there was a house, a beach, we’d be very gay, it all would be. The schlep was a bitch, take the train, get a car or the bus, get to the ferry, that was nice, then land on the island. Eddie was there to greet us, we brought only a few things, swimsuits, sunscreen, my journal, the one that described in detail what it was like to live on coke, Eddie says you guys must have been partying, yes indeed.

Ray was not amused as we passed him while he was painting the marker on the boardwalk, oh there were rules and he was in charge. We had paid for half of the house for the summer, but that wasn’t the way it would work out. Nearly every room that could be rented was, there was someone staying in the spare room, plans for someone to crash on the couch, someone was staying in the tiny cabana out back, it was not the ideal summer retreat where Jason and I would detox, escape the drugs, the city. We overpaid for some groceries, everyone ate them, let’s go to sleep, relax. Ray would stay pissed at us, Eddie was all right, our new houseguests that we had just met were dreadful, welcome to Fire Island. We collapsed then went to the beach the next day.

The Island is very social, the doors to the house always open, everyone working to get invited to another party, it was noisy, people coming and going it was not at all what we had expected, and Jason is not one to sit silently while being disrespected. By the time we got back to the city that weekend he had had it, was very upset, called Ray, we want out of the deal, I want my money back. They would rent our room and pay us what they could. That soured the friendship, it was over, we left our things there including my journal, things that are never returned.  

My brother Leo was coming back for a second visit. Jason and I were doing a lot of coke, waking Bambi, annoying her neighbors, watching the video movies, porn, not sleeping or eating for days on end. Jason began going for walks, we would start tooting then he had to leave, he’d come back hours later, where were you, just walking, one night he came home with his pants ripped, he was in tears, what happened, nothing, nothing, I never knew.

I took the train to the plane to get Leo, I had my little bag of coke, had been up for several days, was bloated, sweaty, he had no idea what he was getting into. We took a cab home, here have some, we spoke of what he wanted to do, he worked in a casino in Vegas, wanted to check out Atlantic City, sure we could do that but first let’s go home and get totally wired.

We did make the trip to Atlantic City, I had been up for a couple of days, the jitney bus was hot, the restroom where I snorted was disgusting, the only thing missing was a half-naked junkie with a syringe dangling from his arm. We took a bag of spare change, the casinos would not cash it in, it wasn’t Vegas, they were trying to be sophisticated, so we wandered the dead jellyfish covered beach, let’s go home brother, we did, the coke was running out. Back on the bus, scraping the bottom of the baggie, by the time we got home the landlord’s son returned, we ran into him and exchanged pleasantries, he was very white and proper, very clean and polite.

Brother and I were heading out to Bambi’s place, suddenly the neighborhood was a war zone, police on horseback swinging their batons at anyone who happened to be in their way, helicopters flying low over head, we saw the landlord’s son running up from Avenue A, what the hell is going on he shouted as he was being chased by police, I shouted to the cop, you can’t touch us we are on our property, we live here asshole! The police with their badges concealed were losing their minds, people were being chased along the streets, there was no media presence, no news trucks, it was a nightmare, a police riot, one cop starts chasing the homeless people out of the park, then they all joined in and just started chasing anyone, no one was in control, it couldn’t be stopped.

I still thought that we should go to Bambi’s to get more coke, as soon as we stepped off of the stoop there was a cop on horseback chasing us across First Avenue swinging his baton through traffic, we ran, some guy was behind us, in the middle of the next block I said fuckit, I didn’t do anything and stopped, turned around in time to see the guy who was behind us get conked on the head then dragged away by his hair, everyone was guilty, the cops were judge and jury, welcome to New York City little brother. We did make it the dealer’s place, she did not answer the door, was probably hiding under the bed. We walked back as people ran from police, as sirens wailed, as traffic slowed, cops on horseback swinging their nightsticks, it went on for hours, Jason slept through the whole thing.

Some people in the neighborhood shot the scene on video cameras from second story windows, the police brutality was clearly evident and finally reported by the news, but because their badges were covered none could be prosecuted. The park was a disaster, it was razed by the city, the homeless didn’t go away, the drugs still flowed, but that building that was planning to sell condos would have a nice view of the park. People were pissed because they said that Madonna was going to pay a million dollars for the penthouse.

Leo left, returned to his life, his job and continued snorting drugs, would blame me for years afterwards that I made him a junkie, what magical powers I possessed, spend a few days with me and I will corrupt your life. Most likely it was the availability of the drugs, making cash money, his being recently single again and honestly if he really wanted to make me proud he would have been gay like me. Bambi became completely unreliable, one evening along First Ave we met Denise, she was different, clean, and had good stuff, had a beeper that we could call, she would get our number, call us from a payphone, she’d be glad to hook us up, she knew Bambi, said that the crack was killing her, if it wasn’t one thing it was another.

There was a neighborhood meeting that was posted on one of the telephone poles, what to do about the police riot, what about the lack of response from the Community Board, it was held in a gated yard on Avenue C, Jason and I dressed nicely, shirts and slacks, the organizers let us in then everyone stared at us, are you guys cops, no cops allowed, we’re not cops, you look like cops, they would not proceed till we left. So much for venting my fury, let’s do coke.

We got tickets to the hottest off Broadway show, Without You I’m Nothing, Sandra Bernhard’s one woman tour de force, I loved her in King of Comedy, everyone was talking about it, we got dressed, let’s do some lines, okay, we did then walked to the small theater on Second, it was packed and buzzing. After we sat down, I began feeling completely wired, too wired, my heart pounding, we have to go, we would see the video adaption later. We missed one more show, the Australian Ballet Company at Lincoln Center, a nearly naked version of Hercules, another hot show, no more tickets till we kick it.

I couldn’t paint, had become addicted to the porn, the coke, we’d do the drug, Jason would leave, I would watch the sex video being played over and over my everlasting boner. One night we ran out, actually it was at about four in the morning, we combed the neighborhood till we finally found a seller on Avenue D, man that was awful coke, tasted like packing tape. We ran out of money, Jason began selling his gold and diamonds, borrowing money from friends, he’d always pay it back.

I was working on a small piece, 18” x 14”, it just sat there for months, something had to give. I can’t live like this anymore, he said, can we get just one more, okay okay. Then I began hallucinating and thought that the interplanetary alien police were chasing me because I was an escaped extraterrestrial living in the wrong dimension, yup time to kick it. Gilda quit first, she refused to partake any longer, I thought if the cat could do it so can we.

I thought that a ceremony would help, we crushed all of the paraphernalia with a hammer then prayed on our knees, Jason being Jewish half heartedly agreed, but some divine intervention was necessary. We began detoxing, discovered that McDonalds food helped, two Big Macs strangely would ease the need, we did a lot of Nyquil to slow the desire, ate everything in sight, put on weight, kept very busy, life was slowly getting back to normal, some kind of normal. I finally finished the painting, but every now and then something would trigger the desire, booze, porn, we’d find Denise, just one, it would be fine, just one.

It became clear that I needed to do something to get out of the house so I volunteered at GMHC, went to the orientation meeting, it was held to see which volunteers would be good and in which capacity. There was still infighting about things that had no bearing on the situation, but it was decided that I would be a good Buddy, they would hook me up with a PWA, I would help him shop, clean, be there if he needed anything.

A small group of Buddies would meet weekly with a leader to talk about what was going on, what to expect and how to deal with it. The group of six men most of whom had been through much more, were not in tune with me, I was naïve, they were not very sympathetic. They set me up with a guy named Todd, he lived down the street, he was young, my age, sick, we’d go to the grocery store, he would cough loudly, pneumonic coughing, people would stare, is he contagious, what the hell are you looking at. Todd was sad, depressed, growing sicker, his family wanted nothing to do with him, he was alone, I was glad to help but his decline was rapid and brutal. One day I saw him in ICU, I the only one there, he was dying, it was a three-month process, it was ugly and fast, Todd died, I was devastated. I went to the following meeting, again outside of the group leader the support that I needed was non-existent.

The people at GMHC realized that it was too much for me, that I should never have been put in that situation knowing that I had so little experience, they suggested God’s Love We Deliver, or the service that would deliver pet food to sick people with animals, yeah I’ll do that, good. I would be hooked up with a driver, we’d be assigned an area in the city, it would change depending on need and who survived.

I went to the first delivery session, was late, met the fellow in charge, he was older and very cranky, he hooked me up with a woman from Queens, she had a small hatchback, we loaded her car with pet food and drove off. We had a map, a list of names, phone numbers, she would park out front, I would take the pet food into people’s homes, she would wait in the car. Some PWA’s were doing all right, some were really sick, some had help, many did not, many were very depressed. I’d be admitted into their apartments, chat briefly, store the food, see the ways that people lived, some apartments were average, others incredible in fading glory. There was one apartment, it must have been fabulous once, but the owner was laid out in his bed, wearing nothing but a diaper writhing in pain, his friend thanked me, I left.

I worked on paintings that were based on rocks, branches, bones, there were no straight lines, no masking off of the color, still precise but more nature inspired, my palette remained minimal. There was a show called Art Around the Park, Tompkins Square, I submitted an application, was stressed to hell, I would show one of my recent works, but the trigger went off and we got coke. Jason helped me get to the park, I found my spot, he left I set my painting down and sat across from it and watched as people passed then I ran into the public restroom and did my blow. It was one of the most difficult things that I had ever done, I couldn’t stand it, felt too vulnerable, exposed, I left early and proceeded to get fucked up.  

We began quitting the coke and socializing more, having people over, we confessed to our friends what we had done, everyone understood were sympathetic, we were not the only cokeheads in the group and our Southern friends said, back where we come from you put the crazy ones out on the front porch, we don’t hide anything. They would stand beside us, love us, be there, as we would for they, our friends weren’t ashamed or accusatory, and they would help me come out of my shell, that would take a while.

I went to the doctor last year, the local clinic, the doctor was really nice, would spend at least an hour with me, we spoke openly about everything, he ordered all of the STD tests, couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had sex in three years, never hurts to get them anyway, checked me out, looked up my nose with that little light and says, did you know that you don’t have a septum, do I need one, did you do cocaine, yeah, it was the eighties, the East Village, everyone did cocaine, you must have blown it out, oh that’s what that was.