BY STEPHEN WOLF Recently, on a cloudy spring afternoon a slender and stylish woman dressed customarily in New York black (with a bit of color beneath her coat, of course) sipped black coffee and gazed with amazement and a tinge of regret across Bryant Park.
A Downtown girl (Bronx-born but on Bank Street for the past 30 years), she hasn’t stood beneath these healthy trees in the center of Midtown since the bad old days. Then this was no Eden amid the traffic and skyscrapers. Back then this was Needle Park — where junkies in the shadows and shot heroin scored at Times Square down the block; where the hookers earned what their catch paid them and garbage, not water, filled the fountain.
“There’s even children here,” she says above the delicate tables and chairs, chess games and laptops, the genuine flowerbeds, and the lawn as green as the plastic grass in Easter baskets.
She wears heels and her blonde hair long, carries a street-smart attitude and maybe a knife (“if you tread/ on me,” she wrote, “you tread on apple, / snake, eve.”). Her eyes are observant, lively, and with none of that most un-New York fear or resistance to look at people: “do not tell me not to talk to strangers” she wrote in “I AM A NY WOMAN.”
This New York woman is Eve Packer, and she’s written remarkably about “all that secret shame” when “there were whores & pimps & thiefs & all kinda stuff.” Her poems tell of a time when, if you were a young woman, “I mean you just didn’t go the 42nd St.”
But Eve did, and with a sharp and sensitive eye wound her own way through 42nd Street where all the theaters showed bad Kung Fu movies, when Eighth Avenue had peep show palaces and “Playland” and “Playpen.” At “Show World” on 8th and 42nd, she was at first kicked out for being a girl; and there was Sally’s — the transvestite showplace beneath the old Times tower. Even the police station now at W. 43rd (where Broadway crosses 7th Avenue) was a sex shop with XXX in the windows between sex toys and promises of “fantasy and fun.”
She explored this male world forbidden to women (except for the strippers and hookers) with compassion. Sinister, sleazy, dangerous, sexy, this world also teemed with dreams and desire, theatrics and even humor. Initially she watched. Later, she took notes. In time, the strippers and hookers, shemales and pimps, junkies and dealers recognized her. Some even trusted her.
“What is love?” she asked them and learned enough to write in her poem “fantasy booth” the voice of the girl who dances (actually just gyrates) for men enclosed in booths for 15 seconds for a quarter: “I go up real/ close, it’s all about giving them/ some & pulling back.”
Her eye and pen captured more than just the sex shops and drugs, for gravitating to this world on the city’s ragged edge despite its centrality were the homeless, the disposed, the forgotten, the lost — staggering and desperate through a time when New York’s murder rate was five times what it is now; when crack vials and tiny plastic bags of different colors, empty of heroin, were everywhere; like a million plastic, fallen leaves throughout Bryant Park.
Educated first at New York’s High School of Music and Art, then the University of Michigan with degrees from the London School of Economics and NYU in psychology, she’s received grants from New York Foundation of the Arts, a National Endowment for Poetry, twice “Downtown” Poet of the Year, and has read/performed at all the finest poetry clubs in the city. She’s taught at Queens College, the New School, and the NYC Department of Education’s Learning to Read Through the Arts program — but her real education and her varied life’s best work came from these busy, gaudy, once-treacherous streets. Her poems are fun, thrilling, provocative; her wit, sharp as stiletto heels.
Her poetry collection “playland: poems 1994-2005” was published by Fly Night Press. Hearing her read is even better (though we miss then her inventive spelling and typography), for Eve doesn’t just read her poetry as most poets do. Eve performs them, giving words emphasis, even acting the girl in the fantasy booth. Her voice can fall into secrecy, slowing down, speaking softly — while at other times, she talks tough or audibly strokes the images with a sensuous, even erotic (though never vulgar) voice, all entwined with an alto saxophone provided by the esteemed Noah Howard, or on piano, the inimitable, the timeless Stephanie Stone.
There’s an exciting CD of her reading, “west from 42nd” — and with a jazz accompaniment, she reads her work on the CD “Now Playing” (also available at Left Bank Books on Eighth Avenue near W. 12th Street). Both CDs are easily gotten on-line through CDBaby as well as NCD Sales. But best is to see/hear her live, on stage, in performance.
“do not tell me what I cannot & can do,” she wrote in her signature piece “I’M A NY WOMAN, I DO WHAT I WANT.”
“do not tell me to wear long black baggy pants when I wanna wear a short sheer orange see-thru mini on subway, bus… “do not tell me not to bite my nails, color my hair…stop giving taxi drivers a hard time piece of my mind, cross against the light… do not tell me not to talk to strangers, flirt, network my cleavage, keep my legs and mouth shut… “do not tell me what I cannot & can do”
Eve saw the change coming, of course; first, the Disney deal, and there’s a Duane Reade’s where Show World once lit and lured on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street. With families now hurrying to see “Mary Poppins” in Times Square, with flowers growing in the ivy and true lovers strolling Bryant Park, she knows the change is for the better, blinks slowly, and says just above a whisper, “Yet like the song says, but not for me.”
Eve Packer’s poem “playland” appears in “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” (Columbia University Press), edited by Stephen Wolf. On May 14th, she’s part of CCNY’s Annual Spring Poetry Festival, and performs solo on May 22nd (between 5 and 7 p.m.) at Small’s Jazz Club, 183 W. 10th Street, just west of Seventh Avenue.