Nose Bleed Uptown

Nose Bleed Uptown

by Norman Douglas



East Village USA

New Museum of Contemporary Art

556 West 22nd Street.

Box Office: 212.727.8110


"They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot.

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

Till it's gone?"


-- Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi,"

{Ladies of the Canyon}, 1969



I always get a nosebleed above 14th Street, so I am walking down Avenue B past Tompkins Square Park and I spot the graffiti of an inverted martini glass, a cross hatch struck diagonally through the three vertical lines that represent its expelled contents. Beneath the entire image is scrawled a date: 1933. And I know "The Party's Over" and I know Peter Missing was here and I'm dreaming of the Weimar Republic, a golden age I've only lived in print, seen on screen, heard on record.


The year, in fact, is 1984, and I've lived three years in the EVil -- twenty-five under my heels -- having landed there on the heels of Ronald Wilson "666" Reagan's inauguration. Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone are tending bar at Vazac's between regular stints at Squat Theater and Club 8BC. John Farris is hosting readings at Neither/Nor, where Miguel Pinero is mainlining speedballs in the back. Mars Bar has just opened and The Rivington Schoolboys (Gizmo, Tovey, Fa-Q (since before the internet acronym), Cowboy, Freddie the Dreamer, Parker, Ken...) shuttle between there and their scrap metal sculpture yard clubhouse at the corner of Forsyth and Rivington, next to the ancient (circa 1970) Adam Purple's Peace Garden. No Se No is having another show with Rat At Rat R and Sam and who the fuck knows who the fuck else. A junkie searches for a vein on a stoop in broad daylight and says "excuse me" as I pass her by. There are storefronts with dusty rolls of toilet paper and faded boxes of Tide in the windows selling grams of coke for twenty-five bucks from behind plexiglass partitioned counters. Lookouts on the corners holler to the smack dealers standing in front of tenement doorways on every cross street; a barker stands outside hawking the heroin by its tag: "Bullit, Bullit, Bullit! Open and smokin'! Cop and go! Cop and go!" "Spiderman!" "Black Rose!" "Roadrunner! Roadrunner!" Tony sold Roadrunner one stoop down from my basement apartment entry under 20 Clinton. We had a song for him to the tune of the Warner Brothers cartoon theme of the same name: "Roadrunner!/Bajando's after you!/Roadrunner!/If he catches you, you're through!" (Bajando}, Comin' down! was another junk spot lookout's cry, raised whenever the cops approached; not knowing Spanglish at the time, we thought it meant "The Man"  --  a noun, rather than a verb.)


But the EVil in the 80s was populated by more than just future movie stars and future art stars and future rock stars and future poet stars and future OD's. There weren't just fly by night art galleries and real estate speculators. There was an attitude, there was a position, there was a theory, there was a plan. Of course, the beauty of these various aspects of the plan was that they were all loosely based on the unspoken principles of an anarchist tradition resistant to catalogues and codification; an agnostic spiritism that named everyone Creator. And like the gods of any pantheon at the genesis of every new age, we reigned in the moment, out of time, tethered by neither cosmopolis nor ego. We staged a dogged resistance to everything including our own resistance. This ultimately amounted to the manifestation of nihilism's last gasp, and the moment  --  never a movement  --  expired, the allure of its defiant posture paving the way for nothing more hated than the ersatz bohemian theme park that now thrives on the same turf: "a pink hotel, a boutique / And a swinging hot spot" as Joni Mitchell so perceptively lamented at the end of another decade loaded with unrealized promise.


If you had been born in 1959 like me and my peers, then you would be eighteen in 1977. In 1977, the legal drinking age was still eighteen, and Ford  --  according to the Daily News  --  had just told New York City to "Drop Dead." And so, after two decades in some horrid smalltown America graveyard, after watching TV news programs full of the mighty land of whitey getting its ass kicked by Vietnam's black pajama mojo men, by Negroes burning down ghettoes, by women wanting to suffer the same jobs men suffer, by hippies turning on and dropping out, by Iranians snatching embassies, by CIA assassinating Latin American and African and Asian leaders and followers, by all the evils visited on Sodom and Gomorrah and as many new internal hemorrhages besides, on top of and over that, you would have to be an idiot or a flag-waving jingo or a jock not to want to move to New York City, Open City, trash can of the free, dustbin of mystery. And if you had a certain vision, a gut premonition that all these sins of the fathers -- those the native Americans referred to as the Great Fathers in Washington, DC  --  were about to make the whole grand melted pot dissolve into nothingness, that there was No Future, then you moved to the Lower East Side or its neighboring neighborhood, the East Village. You might wander to the queerer parts of the Village itself or the desolate stretch of what was once Hell's Kitchen and would soon become Chelsea; or cross over to Brooklyn's Kent Avenue or Flushing Avenue or the abandoned, still cobbled blocks in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. But that was it. Harlem called insistently, but it was so far uptown and you had to cross the rest of Manhattan to get there. And that's who was in the EVil in the 80s: out-of-towners with no place else they wanted to go and who didn't apologize for moving into roach-ridden flats nobody wanted and walking drug-infested streets that everyone supported. And I mean everyone. My first supervisor at CBS News gave me a blast of coke on my first day of work. He later revealed he wanted to ensure I wasn't a narc. The director of our show called "conference time" in the control room after pre-tapes to let the crew know we were meeting in the scene shop to get blasted on blow and bud before going on air. "Ya gotta be on something if you're gonna be on air," we used to joke. At parties, in bars and clubs and restaurants, no one hit the bathroom alone  --  ever. And the only reason you didn't lay your dope out on the table or the bar was fear of narcs (but even the narcs were getting fucked up, taking your dope was easier than taking you to jail)  --  sharing your last line meant someone would soon step up to repay you. Drugs killed the eighties, much as they fueled the "good times."


Of course, there was an enemy. Ronald Wilson Reagan and Maggie Thatcher make George Bush and Tony Blair look like Hansel and Gretel. If you doubt that everything they did and represented made you as complacent and impotent as you are, then you are even more helpless and clueless than you think. We hated them and we blamed them for everything: from death squads in Central America and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation to seeing a bad movie or having a lousy day. (Fucking Ronnie, that bastard! My goddamn alarm clock didn't go off and my boss docked my pay and I get home and the heat don't work and I tried to buy some blow but it was beat and I only have five bucks so I either eat or drink but not both. Fucking movie star asshole fascist prick motherfucker better not blow shit up or I'll kill him!) Times were tough, but you had to love and loved to hate it.


The New Museum of Contemporary Art, temporarily housed in the Chelsea Art Museum all the way west on 22nd Street, dares to present this brief and momentous conflux of contrarians to a public no longer composed of workers, a populace of consumers accustomed to the vicarious. It's a dirty job and I'm not so sure somebody had to do it, but Dan Cameron and friends did it and so, there it is. As I slogged my way through the diminutive gallery with a couple of photographer pals  --  one who spent the late eighties and early nineties in the EVil, the other who arrived in '97 (I spent the late eighties and early nineties in Paris with him)  --  I regaled them with tales of the after dark revels I shared with various of the rebels on display.


The most intense moment came when I saw Lung Leg, the gorgeous EVil movie starlet, in the Sonic Youth video made by Richard Kern. I adored Lung in those days, though I doubt she ever knew it. And even though I had a reputation for making time with scores of ofay chicks, whenever I met Lung I would be reduced to the likes of a stuttering grammar school boy with a crush on his homeroom teacher. I'm not sure why she had that effect on me, nor why she was in that video  --  the scenes with her looked like outtakes from another one of Kern's better films  --  but it was a real heartstring tugging moment for me. I was practically in tears.


I know him, he fucked her after me. I know her, my roommate brought her back from an OD. I know him, he robbed my buddy for a bag of smack one night when there was a panic, but when he got paid for a TV script two weeks later, he paid my buddy back. That's the kind of guide I played for my buddies at the New Museum that afternoon. I know nobody cares about sex and drugs now. It hardly makes one a rebel or different these days. In fact, I've started to take the position that it's more rebellious to stay sober. People who get wasted get way too bent out of shape when you refuse. Everybody wants the DD to have "just one beer!" Anyhow, all that exciting stuff goes on night after night while people are striving to make history. It's in all the tell-alls, the sordid and besotted memoirs of beautiful losers and unlucky winners. It always ends in death or regret or reform or revelation. It ended the East Village in high rents and renovation, and it keeps the newcomers paying ten times the value of what things are worth, paying through the nose like suckers at a PT Barnum freak show.


I could list all the names of scribblers and anti-folk singers and filmmakers and drug dealers and actors and dancers and junkies and coke fiends and drunks and killers and whores and hippies and queers and punks and hustlers and jazzbos and hangers-on and bouncers and the like, but it would do them no justice. Everyone I remember should have a biography in print, and a lot of people I forget, as well. The thing that the EVil scene of the 80s had going for it was that it was an Open City, and everyone knew this and everyone said so, using those same two words, and we'd all seen the film at Theater 80 or Thalia or Film Forum. There were magazines and zines and samizdats, there were concerts and parties in the park and in empty lots and empty schools and empty everything all full of life, and sometimes you were the star and sometimes you told the stars to fuck off and sometimes you missed it and sometimes it fell right on top of you.


To be fair, you can read a bunch of the writers' interviews of artists of all media in the catalog. Even then, I can't help wondering why Calvin Reid's art was absent from the walls; why Marguerite van Cook has neither writing nor art anywhere. \footnote{1}


Here's a story that will never be told: A bunch of poets picked me to be the only poet outside CBGB's when the organizers of the Jello Biafra anti-censorship benefit said there was no room for so many poets and when I read my poem, Stefan, leader of the aptly-named punk band False Prophets, jumped on stage and censored me. I know it was not because I single-handedly booed False Prophets offstage the night they opened for Butthole Surfers at the World a year or so earlier (although it struck me as rather canny that Wishnia responded in his mike to my heckling with "Sounds like somebody who went to Brown," the school I attended at the same time as him before leaving for SFAI). The fact that Stefan thought my poem was too sexist (Nigger  --  I mean, black man -- reading about cutting up women? Not in my EVil!) was odd, punk lyrics being full of not-so-innuendo. The audience, comprised primarily of women, rallied to my side. "You're just afraid he's telling the truth about how you think." What a hoot! Where the fuck was Jello when I needed him? There was a reason we hated California.


A real Lower East Side story took place the other night, right here in the Hudson Valley. That morning, I was contemplating this "review," thinking about how to write about how all we all believed we were somebody even when we were nobody. I flashed on the museum security guard who took pictures for twenty years with the camera he always carried, although no one has ever seen a single photo by him. And then I thought about Mark. Mark was a painter whose paintings I never saw and because he was a painter he never had to carry a tool, like the museum guard who at least had the camera. Mark would go to all the openings and talk passionately about how shitty the art was, fulminating about the time he met said artist and how not only the art sucked, but the artist was an asshole, too. I never remembered what Mark did because I never saw him do anything but drink and take dope, hanging around with this big beautiful redhead I thought was German because she never spoke, only to find out she was from California. Mark was one of these square-jawed white guys with square shoulders, tall with long arms and blue eyes and a brown mop of hair and he always had a three-day shadow (a look I've only discovered how to cultivate in the past year; I used to sport the three-week shadow). If you asked Mark where he was coming from, he'd always say he "just left" his studio, and he was always on his "way back" to the studio when you finally persuaded him to extract himself from your presence. I don't know anyone who ever went to his studio, but I preferred scribblers because they usually had some information that fell outside the seventeen blocks and twenty-six years of our lives  --  some fascist writer who tried to take over Japan, say. A few artists knew about art history, but most preferred to remain "pure" and "uninfluenced" by others, a position no self-respecting writer could truck (Burroughs, our hero, quoth "Writing is plagiarism," which, in decrypted writers' argot, spelt: READ). And John Farris would curse you out if you hadn't read what he'd read ("What do you \italic{mean}, you haven't read that, you \italic{ass}hole?"), managing to embarrass  --  and piss off -- a lot of successful writers in his time. Mark was one such purist of art, which must be why he hated everyone in the galleries. I saw my own drawings in galleries before I saw his. In fact, I haven't seen his. Ever.


So, this same night I'm starting this text  --  around Thanksgiving Christmas '04 -- I'm at a restaurant in the valley with the same photographer I saw the EVil show with, and who should stroll up to us at the bar but Mark? I'm like, "Jesus, I haven't thought about you in twenty fucking years and I think about you this morning and your ass shows up!"


He's like, "So, you hear about William B.? He's in jail for murder. It's all circumstantial. Hear about Heidi? She's dead. Heard about Richard? He's on his last legs." All this is in his usual stage whisper as he leans too close to me, interrupting my practiced genteel routine while annoying my friend and hers. He stands back a moment and then leans in for an even louder stage whisper than before. "Man, I went way down on smack after I last saw you. And now I'm clean for three years."


"Really? I thought you were already way down when I split for Paris."


"No," he confides to the bar in that not-so-undertone of his, "I was just a baby then. Not like you." He grins, congratulating himself.


"Well, good for you," I congratulate him, too, always partial to a real, live, happy ending.


"So," he says  --  and I'm waiting for this: "what happened to you? I heard you spun all the way down."


"That's right," I retort in the Imperious Voice, "I died, but I had the good fortune to experience The Resurrection first-hand."


He stands back and nods, grinning, "Yeah," chuckles, "Me, too."


"So," I says, "It's been like twenty years since I seen you. Must be a reason." I expect he'll get the hint, extract himself from my presence, hit the road; but he goes the other way.


"Yeah. I guess we're supposed to meet."


I roll my eyes and give him my number after punching his into my phone. At least, I'll know it's him when he calls. I can always switch the ringer to Silent Mode, let AUDEX take a message. Once again, the universe has conspired to remind me that you can't go back, and why I don't live in the city.


The joy with which New Yorkers complain and delight in the bearing of bad news is mind-boggling. Nothing like seeing someone else go down to get yourself up on your tin pedestal. With all the shops and boutiques and coffee houses and hot new fashions to spruce up your birthday suit, new New Yorkers are still arch at the art of the bitch and moan. In the end, my recollections of the EVil are like staging a car wreck so I can charge rubberneckers admission. You weren't there, I'm not there. The Party's Over. Bigtime.


Up here, in the land of double rainbows, silver-lined clouds, and rain pushing up the daisies, it's a regular hotbed of holistic health and happiness. And if you get lonely for The City, there's always a newcomer with a standard bellyache, a well-reasoned gripe...


Okay. You're right. I'm a fucking nobody. It's a hundred years later and I'm in my rocking chair on my porch in the valley telling all the little kiddies stories of the bad old days and qualifying each one with the moral: "I know you kids won't be crazy like me. Go on, be a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, a rocket scientist. Shop at Home Depot, buy Wal-Mart. See the endlessly self-renovated Bohemian Theme Park for your consumerized selves. It's safe now."


I could say that Dan Cameron should have hung the New Museum show the way they hung shows at No-Rio -- everybody could have gotten in there. I could have written about Hilton Kramer and the NEA and The Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. They could have held a marathon reading like they have at St. Mark's Church every new year. No one should be allowed in the bathrooms alone. Anyone with drugs should be required to share. Anyone with money should hand out indefinite loans to people without money while saying something witty or rebellious or insulting. Everyone should be afraid of the war. With the axe about to fall, anything should go anywhere, anytime, and we should all go there together, certain that we are going nowhere with no future fast, and we will all spread our ashes on The Lower East Side like Mikey Pinero and countless others.


Never mind about the government. It's always six o'clock! You got ten bucks?



Okay, I can't help listing. Here goes: me and Kevin Johnson crashed Joe Coleman's geek show at Milky Way with a leaf blower and toilet paper; Joel Rose published Between C & D, a computer printout quarterly in a big baggie (like the drugs C & D, coke and dope  --  or the Avenues C & D, between which Rose lived with Catherine Texier in a squat turned co-op  --  or, again, the Avenues C & D, between which most of the drugs were sold) which included Patrick McGrath, Kathy Acker, Darius James, Emily Carter, John Farris (who hosted these writers and more at Neither/Nor on E. 6th between C&D), and more (not me, I refused to be in it); Kurt Hollander and Arthur Nersesian did The Portable Lower East Side, a small format paperback quarterly full of an even broader spectrum of LES writers. (I last saw Kurt the night he opened a billiard parlor in Mexico City's hipster neighborhood, Hipodromo Condesa, around the corner from Miguel Calderon's gallery, La Panaderia, where I stayed for three months in traction after busting my hip in a car crash on the way to Tepoztlan that same night.) Nersesian wrote The Fuck-Up, a classic tale of EVil slackerdom. Michael Carter, who appeared in both those mags, published Red Tape for seven issues, a zine with no two like formats. La Mama hosted shows featuring Julian Beck, Pina Bausch, some crazy Bhutto guy from Japan, Pooh Kaye, Crystal Field, George Bartenieff, Fred Newman... the list never ends. Rockets Redglare hosted the shows featuring Buscemi and Boone at 8BC and lurked about the LES until his death a couple of years ago, managing to appear in a few Jarmusch films, Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer's Candy Mountain, and once sold me and two buddies a bottle of cherry juice he said was methadone. Matthew Courtney's Sunday night open mikes at ABC No Rio featured not only poets like Sparrow but scores more you'll never hear about who were even better, like John the Communist and Sam and me and there were also plenty of anti-folk singers like Roger Manning and Latch, who started the Anti-Folk Hootenanny at Sidewalk in the 90s. Sidewalk and 7A cafes were \italic{the} in-places to slack. You could get a bottomless pint of iced coffee for a buck, which helped you move your bowels before you met your smack dealer, or wait till the bars were open to ease your hangover, or get a mild wire going until you were ready to do some blow. While you were there, you might land a part in a film by Nick Zedd or Cassandra Stark or R. Kern or Tess Hughes-Freeland or Eliana Troyano. Maybe Missing would invite you to go on a bombing mission with him, or ask you to help him trash the newest naïve venue that had never hosted him before that night. Junior was the Mayor of the park. Rakowitz wandered around with his chicken, zonked on hallucinogens and pot. Gary Indiana mentions the swankier spots like Eileen's Reno Bar, where I bravely sidled up to Burroughs and asked him "What's up?" His reply was a simple, "I'm finished" in the Omni-Imperious Voice. Jesus, how I could go on. The thing is, you don't \italic{hang out} with accomplished losers like this; nobody was trying to break into the indie scene  --  the East Village \italic{was} the scene. The indie market likely grew out of the EVil, but you can't discount the decentralized scene marketed as "grunge" that went on in the rest of the country, way west of the Hudson. (I won't even start on all the freak stars who passed through town on tour to and from the rest of the country to sleep all night in our Soul Kitchen -- a basement flat on Clinton -- despite their label-paid hotel rooms. It's not a badge  --  we don't need no stinking badges  --  it's like an adventure.)