Downtown Distopias: Or Learning to Leave the Lower East Side - by Sara Ferguson

"No Lease on Life"Lynne Tillman

"Diary of an Emotional Idiot" Maggie Estep

"The Fuck-Up" Arthur Nersesian

"Totem of the Depraved" Nick Zedd "Distorture" Rob Hardin

"Two bags of vomit are walking around the neighborhood. One bag of vomit starts to cry. The other bag of vomit asks, What's the matter? The first bag of vomit says, I was brought up around here."

-- from No Lease on Life, by Lynne Tillman

Downtown Distopias: Or Learning to Leave the Lower East Side by Sara Ferguson


It's been the nature of Lower East Side writers to boast of their down and out origins. Enduring the filth, lousy living conditions, and perpetual social upheaval is the writer's badge of honor -- though one which grows increasingly cliche with every condo conversion and T-1 hookup that reconfigures the nabe. There used to be a romance to the Lower East Side's squalor. Into this village of broken immigrant dreams came the crosscurrents of youth, transients, artists, and the terminally hip. A potent cocktail. When the drug gangs and real estate wars hit, you could rock in the depravity, stay high off the kinetics of shootouts and artworld hypocrisy -- which is what the writers ranting in zines like the East Village Eye, Between C and D, Avenue E, and Red Tape during the 1980s generally did.

The squalor gave legitimacy to downtown writers' rage and alienation, but it's a stance that's come to seem indulgent, if not quaint, under the staunch gaze of the Giuliani era. There is, as yet, no novel which traces the neighborhood's evolution from a low-rent haven of multicultural diversity and social permissiveness in the 60s and 70s to a punkrock playground of political and artistic dissent in the early 80s; much less an account of its present-day transformation into a kind of overpoliced Venice Beach East scripted by film crews, theme bars, and professional sex freaks. What we have in the recent works of downtown veterans Lynne Tillman, Maggie Estep, Arthur Nersesian, Nick Zedd, and Rob Hardin are snapshots of a counterculture in retreat.

In Tillman's No Lease On Life we find a wizened Lower East Side, one which has lost patience with the 24-hour freakshow hanging out on its doorstep. The novel's protagonist, Elizabeth Hall, is a part-time proofreader who spends her insomniac nights plotting revenge against the "morons" and "crusties" who disrupt her sleep, while obsessing about the junkies and filth in her hallways, which her landlord and incompetent super refuse to clean. With minimal plot, the narrative is carried by Elizabeth's voyeuristic neurosis, by her compulsion to collect minutia from the lives of those around her like the super, Hector who can't stop dragging things in off the street.

Tillman's portrait of the Lower East Side as an overpriced slum stripped bare of its social ideals might have its truth in today's hardened political climate. Still, one can't help wishing the scope of the book weren't so ultimately mundane. Through Elizabeth, she creates a relentless catalogue of the everyday indignities suffered by city dwellers: "It was grotesque being enclosed by four shabby walls and not being able to afford it, or even finding yourself considering renting it. It was tenement despair." But Tillman never really plumbs the spiritual dislocation that keeps us honeycombed in these states of manic isolation. Nor does she convey much sense of the cultural vitality that has been lost from the neighborhood. One wishes Elizabeth's character had been taken on with a clearer sense of irony, or that she at least had more sex.

Instead, we have the story of a woman yearning for middle class norms which her neighbors stubbornly reject. Only when Elizabeth resorts to her own childish prank -- tossing eggs at the "morons" outside her window -- does she achieve some agency over what is otherwise an all-too pedestrian life of defeat.

By contrast, Maggie Estep's Diary of an Emotional Idiot, Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-Up, and Nick Zedd's Totem of the Depraved are all coming of age tales, evoking the 1980s East Village in all its messy, adolescent clamor. Estep's tranparently autobiographical plot follows a young malcontent, Zoe, from her disfunctional childhood in the burbs of France and various East Coast states, to her days as a dopefiending punkrocker and "fuckbook" writer on the Lower East Side. The best scenes involve her rescue from the clutches of a pretentious dope dealer by a couple who strongly resemble Between C & D editors Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, followed by an amorous episode in detox with a girl who reeks of cheese doodles.This is not a great novel, more an extended version of one of Estep's performance rants. Estep makes little effort to document the political or social landcape around her. Still, anyone who lived in the neighborhood can vouch for the politically incorrect cast of cartoon characters who inhabit Zoe's walkup tenement. There is Lonette, the foul-mouthed welfare queen who gives blowjobs, Daisy the fading stripper, the Hefty Lesbian downstairs, a bug-eyed speed-freak dubbed The Eye Guy, and the seemingly ubiquitous, Heavy Metal Guitarist Upstairs.

Nersesian treads similar turf in The Fuck-Up, but with a more wistful sense of youth gone awry. A former managing editor of the literary magazine Portable Lower East Side, Nersesian self-published the novel in 1991. Reisssued by Akashic Books, the book captures the jaded innocense of early 80s Lower East Side, before the St. Mark's Cinema morphed into The Gap and The Ritz migrated uptown, before the Bowery bums became nefarious squeegeemen, when screwing up was simply a rite of passage.

The narrator is a young, Midwestern would-be poet who is suddenly orphaned, and finds himself proceeding through a series of hapless jobs and failed love affairs, becoming ever more savaged by the absurd, only-in-New-York misfortunes that befall him. In the space of a few months, his bibliophile best friend jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, and he gets booted from the swank Soho loft he's housesitting for sleeping with the famous film director owner's art-world nymphet. Feigning to be gay, he lands a job as a manager of an East Village porn theater, only to be chased out by the mafioso owner for cooking the books. He shacks up with a divorcé stock broker that he meets in a shootout at Blimpies, and winds up getting gored by her son and a pack of prep-school kids. From there its a swift descent through alcohol to the delirium of the streets.

Unlike Estep's Zoe, Nersesian's Fuck-Up does not wallow in self- induced torment. He blames his fate on the "mechanism of the East Village," and anyone who's bottomed out here can tell you how easy it is to slip. It's significant that the Fuck Up only succeeds in getting his shit together when he moves to Brooklyn. The Lower East Side is a fallout zone that breeds dissolution.

Of course, few have embraced dissolution so thoroughly as underground filmmaker Nick Zedd. His recent autobiography, Totem of the Depraved, is much like his transgressive flicks -- so weirdly bad it's good. Despite Zedd's runaway ego, his endless, unapologetically sexist boasts about his sadistic exploits with Lydia Lunch and other punk doyennes, there is something deadpan hilarious about this book's self-mocking take on punk downtown: "Every penny I raise driving a cab goes to pay Baby Jane Holzer, ex-Warhol superstar turned greedy slumlord. My rent is three times what it should be." There's also hefty declarations like: "In a thousand years, like any civilization, ours will be judged by the ideas found in the subterranean artifacts being produced by the impovershed and the marginalized, and it is for this reason that I continue to make films, whether or not anyone comes to see them, because they speak to me and to future generations who will one day dispose of this monolith of greed that oppresses us all."

Zedd's no Levi-Strauss, but he manages to dredge up a lively, and surprisingly authentic portrait of one New York's most inane and deranged subcultures, chock full of cokehead satanists, acid casualties, and skeezy guys pimping off strung-out go-go dancing girlfriends (Zedd included). Exactly the kind of morons that Tillman has come to hate. Admittedly, such lifestyles were never meant to be sustainable; Zedd, too, winds up in Brooklyn licking his wounds. But the book recaptures the fuck-it-all zeal of being an underground artist at a time when such pursuits seem impossible, if not pointless.

While Zedd's, Estep's and Nersesian's books are all period pieces, Rob Hardin's Distorture comes closest to conjuring the late Romantic sensibility of downtown New York as it exists now -- depoliticized, shorn of all but its most selfish ideals, caught up in a goth/S&M fantasy of hyper-intellectualized, cyberpunk noir.

"At vision's limit, he discerned a phalanx of tenements that swayed like sick bums leaning. Above it, the sky looked so polluted that the noon glare offered no more light than smudged neon. But the stratosphere's gun- metal gray felt deeper than the screen he saw when he tried to rest his eyes."

A sound engineer and studio musician, Hardin won a Firecracker Award for this arched collection of shorts, rants, and essays. Though not ostensibly about the Lower East Side, many of the stories take place in its fictive space of perpetual demise. They are like holographs, flickering between premillennial tension and 19th century malaise. In "Knives for Narcoleptics," a couple of young degenerates struggle to wake a narcoleptic woman passed out in an abandoned tenement, her body ritualistically scarred. "Cadaver-Scan," moves from the claustrophobic squalor of a Lower East Side apartment to a futuristic identity rape inside a recording studio; and the rant "BlowHo" skewers downtown's faux-chic: "NYC became the real estate spittoon of stage set ambiance, white-washed local color, and all species of scum that passed for picturesque to people who'd just moved there from Binghampton. Week-old rat corpses and phlegm flecked with Body Bag masquerading as Lucky Seven ('In my day, they had real heroin') glittered under the gazes of suburban college backwash and moneyed runaways...."

The text is disjointed, at times pretentious, and one wishes Hardin would develop his grotesque plots into a full-length novel. Still, at least Hardin's experimental approach offers an escape hatch for repression -- fantasy and horror -- where Tillman finds only despair. \work{Distorture} is dedicated, in part, to Susan Walsh, a former Village Voice writer and go go dancer who disappeared mysteriously. Her specter and those of other fallen angels haunt Hardin's baroque imagination. In a sense, they are a metaphor for the exquisitely depraved Loisaida we lost, the one we've been forcedto grow out of by a patriarch mayor and a relentless real estate economy that leaves no margin for self-destructive dreamers and gloriously non-conformist fools: "I could only relive those polluted nights in memoriam; could only commemorate the times I last saw her alive; when passion swam, submerged in the past -- which is of course, the only thing that lasts."

When this review was written, I was not aware of the rerelease of Yuri Karpalov's classic memoir, It Takes a Village, by Akashic Books.