Saturday, February 6, 2016

ST. MARK'S IS DEAD and Life in the East Village

Last week, I finished a terrific book. It is a relatively new release, as of this writing, and looks like this:

I heartily recommend it. It's smart, crisply written, witty, and the author has a broad view of history that keeps things objective, and described with an admirably holistic perspective. For anyone not familiar with NYC, this book is an amazing but of microcosm history; the history of the City, the country, and modern culture in general, all represented by a street that has managed to rewrite itself every ten years or so. For anyone that is familiar with life in the East Village, it's a ripping good yarn, and revelatory in the way you always hope non-fiction will be. 

It opened up a lot of memories/wounds/emotions in my brain and I will talk about them now.

The overlap of my life and the life of New York's East Village is a wee Vesica Piscis of less less than a decade, with my time working on (and essentially consumed by) St. Mark's Place being only slightly slightly bigger. It takes up most of my early and mid-twenties, which is a tender time when you make a lot of stupid mistakes, sleep very little, and generally still have plenty of puberty fueling your brain. My first experiences with St Marks Place are tied to young love, which is always nice for warm nostalgia. My college girlfriend (a great person and still a good friend) lived over the Mojo Guitar Shop, and right across from Yaffa Cafe (both "PERMANENTLY CLOSED" to use the harsh parlance of Google). Our first date was a midnight showing of CITY OF LOST CHILDREN at the Anjelika, and I walked her home through the mid-nineties barrage of 3 am drug-dealers. It was creepy and unsafe and I had no idea it would soon be my happy home. Not only was I often in that apartment, I was also soon hired at a notorious retail establishment, a job which outlasted the romance by several years.

Drawings I did in 2009 remembering St Marks Place in 1999. 
The author of ST. MARKS IS DEAD apparently worked at the same store I did; I suspect we only missed each other by weeks, since we are evidently the same age. This was during college and a few years thereafter for me, and the shop in question was at the time a highly enviable spot for part-time work. It had a reputation for being a cool, if difficult place, with an infamous cast of attractive and tattooed/pierced/be-mohawked girls working the register. I worked the night shift, which meant dealing with St Marks weirdos until one in the morning, which is when the prime weirdos were just getting started. We would kick out junkies, roll our eyes at the gutter punks, get star-struck by the frequent famous rock star or indie film actor, and then roll out into the night to drink cheap beers with ill-advised cash advances on our paychecks. The entire east village was our stomping ground, when there was still grounds to stomp (almost every bar we frequented between 3rd Avenue and Avenue C are all gone).

I lived on Avenue B for several years, and saw a drastic change in just a few short years. From junkies on the stoop, needing to be bribed with bottles of Red Stripe before they let you enter, to a velvet rope and bouncer, guarding a tapas bar that had opened in the former home of SAVE THE ROBOTS. The bouncers gave us more grief than the junkies, and I knew it was probably time to migrate to Brooklyn like every single other human under 25 was doing at the time.

Like anyone else who ever visited the East Village will always say, it's a very different place now. Most of the bars we enjoyed are gone, or so drastically changed as to be unrecognizable. Sounds and Kim's are gone, and the hours I spent looking at those shelves and racks are a stupid memory. I don't have a lot of rose-tinted nostalgia in this life, but it was a genuinely great place to live, when I lived there, at the age I was living through. I have funny anecdotes and awesome memories enough to fill a couple of different lifetimes.

Here's a few of them.
  •  SEX AND THE CITY filmed an episode in the store, and Sarah Jessica Parker had her costume people take photos of me, to use as a model for dressing the "perfect nerd". She later tracked me down to apologize after it occurred to her that that was maybe not flattering. I almost told the entire tale here, but got distracted.
  • While closing the store one night, a co-worker (who has since become a terrific musician and visual artist, but still just a kid at the time) mentioned that he knew of a post-fashion show party in Chelsea. We all scrambled to dress in a variety of Star Trek uniforms on display, hopped in a cab, and tried to convince the person at the door of a fancy club on the west side that we were, in fact, on the list. It did not work and we were suddenly stranded in Star Trek uniforms and carrying extra bottles of beer. I don't remember how we got home.
  • One Christmas Eve, after getting holiday shit-blasted on whiskey, a few of us emerged from being the only people in a bar by Tompkins Square to see a few clean inches of snow had fallen. The entire area was ours to play in as snow drifted down through the street lights. No one got hurt, and that was a Christmas miracle 
  • One of the greatest shows I have ever seen was on St. Mark's Place. A BLACK SABBATH cover band, with a chubby, middle-aged lead singer that put on a star-spangled wizard's hat when they performed THE WIZARD. It was amazing. 
  • I think they opened after I moved away, but goddam if CRIF DOGS hasn't been a great event anytime I've been there.
  • My bride and I ended up on St. Mark's Place towards the end of our first date, eating Afghan food at Khyber Pass, while she told me about all the shows she saw at Coney Island High, which used to sit across the street. 
There's way too many more to type, and after typing those, I realize how much of the post-adolescent era is probably a you-had-to-be-there situation. 

At any rate, living in the East Village in the late 1990s was awesome, and ST MARK'S IS DEAD is also awesome.

1 comment:

Garry W Shores said...

I remember my first night in NYC hanging out with you there. Calling in sick to work in Knoxville. Damn fine times.