Below 14th

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05/30/2013

Neighborhood: East Village, Lower East Side

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In the summer of 1984, I sublet an apartment on East 3rd Street between Avenue A and B, about one hundred yards from the building in which I had spent the first 18 years of my life. I’d been away for six years—the first four at a small college in the midwest followed by two years in a roach infested Hell’s Kitchen tenement apartment that I’d shared with two roommates.

When I was growing up, many of the buildings in my neighborhood had burned down and in just 10 years the population of the alphabet avenues below 14th Street had been cut in half. But by the time I returned, there were signs of new life. Bars and restaurants had opened on Avenue A. Squatters were setting up quarters in a handful of the hundreds of abandoned buildings where families had lived only a decade earlier. Rubble strewn lots were being replaced by community gardens. Things were still gritty, but the streets buzzed with excitement and the menace had receded.

After getting set up in my apartment, one of the first things I wanted to do was to find my old friend Henry Shelton, who I assumed was still living with his mother. Henry was one of those kids much admired in the playgrounds and schoolyards during our childhood. From the time I was six right through my teenage years, I had thought of him as my best friend, and in this surely I was not alone.

Henry was a neighborhood superhero. Reading Charles Dickens novels at age six, able to dunk a basketball at age 11, having sex with a private school girl named Jane at age 13. He was a black kid who effortlessly moved between the Puerto Ricans, whites, and blacks who warily shared the P.S. 63 playground. More important than any of that, Henry was fun, fearless and good natured. When you went out with him to play basketball or explore Mulberry Street during the Feast of San Gennaro or ride bikes onto the Staten Island Ferry, you were going on an adventure, and Henry, with his great enthusiasm somehow made you feel brave and important. The neighborhood authority figures, including my parents, teachers and police officers from the 9th precinct had a considerably more jaundiced view of Henry, but that only added to his luster as far as I was concerned.

Over the course of the summer of 1984, I heard different stories about Henry’s whereabouts. His mother, who lived on the 19th floor in one of the Village View buildings, never seemed to be home when I rang her buzzer and neither did Henry.

It seemed Henry had moved away. My friend David said Henry’s sister had told him her brother had gotten a pilot’s license and was transporting cargo for an airfreight company in southeast Asia. Caz had a letter from Henry in which he wrote that he was doing maintenance work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. One-legged Mike told me Henry was in the army and stationed in Germany. According to Yossi, a local gambler and basketball maven, Henry was out of the army. Yossi said he’d managed to arrange a basketball scholarship for him at William Penn, a college in Iowa, but that Henry had never shown up. “How’s that for gratitude,” asked Yossi. Joan Toratelli swore that Henry was the father of her year-old child. But Joan was known to be a habitual liar. Suffice it to say there were all kinds of rumors and most of them were fantastical. Whatever the true story, Henry seemed to have made a great escape and I didn’t doubt he was doing something daring and enviable.

Towards the end of the summer though, there began to be sightings. Old Phil Wachtel, who was in the local political club and might get you a summer job with the city if he knew your parents, was walking home from the Post Office when he saw Henry standing on the corner of Avenue B and 3rd Street. He’d told this to Anthony, a high-school friend of mine who was Phil’s neighbor. Years back Henry had accidentally shot Anthony in a disastrous incident of teenage idiocy, so Anthony was no longer as enamored of Henry as I was. Nevertheless, he was curious. Anthony thought he’d seen Henry walking across the bandstand at Tompkins Square Park. But when Anthony walked up closer to the stage, Henry had disappeared.

Mrs. Meltzer, of apartment 4B at the Ageloff Towers, where my parents lived, was looking out her window and saw him sitting by himself on a bench in the little kid’s playground on the north side of the P.S. 63 schoolyard. Mrs. Korotkin, who like Mrs. Meltzer, spent her days sitting in a folding chair along with a gaggle of stern-looking old ladies outside my parents’ building, told me that she had seen Henry at the supermarket on the corner. “I seen him at the Key. He was buying baking soda,” she said.

Have I mentioned the neighborhood’s resurrection? If you were 24-years-old and had grown up there, it was the bars on Avenue B and Avenue A that seemed most incredible in 1984. Drinking joints filled with NYU students, European adventurers, scraggly bohemians, and brave young professionals. It seemed like a miracle. Being drunk in a bar without feeling any sense of danger, listening to strange music, talking to perfect strangers, hearing people speak French, being surrounded by new arrivals who weren’t consumed by suspicion and anger, walking home without constantly looking over your shoulder, all of this was new to me. Actually, I still looked over my shoulder, but it was more out of habit than anything else.

When I think back on it today, I realize it wasn’t all great. By ’84 AIDS was out there and people you knew were dying. And many of the neighborhood’s streets were still choked in a morbid narcotic haze. Those days were, I am sure, brutal and cruel for many. But for me, being in a bar filled with life and good spirits at an hour well past midnight, on a street that had been entirely deserted at night just 10 years ago, was a miracle.

It wasn’t at one of the new places, but an old-time tavern across from Tompkins Square Park where I found myself one night that summer. The establishment is still there today with its horseshoe-shaped bar and pinball machine. Known to some as Vazacs and others as 7B, it has, over the years, been a favorite shooting location for movies. There’s a scene that takes place there in The Godfather II, which I remember watching as it was filmed back in 1973 as I walked home from school. By now Vazacs had developed a following. During the day, it was still frequented mainly by old Ukrainian men and Puerto Ricans, but at night it was filled with newcomers.

That night I was drinking Bass Ale and trying to have a conversation with a Japanese woman who seemed to be saying she was a film director. It was hard to know for certain though because she kept putting her hand over her mouth as she talked. The conversation was going nowhere. She was walking away to go the bathroom when I saw Henry.

I wasn’t sure at first, so I walked right up to him to take a closer look. Henry? The reason I wasn’t completely sure was because Henry Shelton had shrunk. He didn’t have his huge arms, the product of countless arm curls with free weights. That night at Vazacs those arms looked like twigs. And Henry’s chest was gone. Ten years ago, when his shirt came off on the basketball court before choosing up sides for a game, Henry’s chest had said, "Take me." But it had vanished completely, and there seemed to be only a hollow cavity left. He was shorter somehow as well. I don’t know how a young man can lose three inches, but it had happened. So even looking closely, I couldn’t really be certain it was him. But when Henry Shelton started talking, I knew. The sound of his voice hadn’t changed.

He started off by saying something about Oscar Wilde and how running into his old friend here seemed like a scene out of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then he asked about a girl from college that visited me one summer. “You know, the girl with the blonde hair, what happened to her?” Henry asked. Soon we were talking about old friends and whatever happened to Shap and Bobby and Aaron. Talking about how this one had moved to Chicago and that one was working as a bank teller. I thought about mentioning the drugs getting Aaron. There’d even been an article in the newspaper about him and others falling victim to a batch of bad heroin. But I decided not to say anything about it. Henry kept talking about his sister, who was doing something with costumes on Broadway, and Alaska, and playing pick-up ball with Hawthorne Wingo at West 4th Street and then again saying something weird about The Picture of Dorian Gray and how his old friend, by which he meant me, hadn’t changed one bit.»

Below 14th

Henry went on and on, pausing every now and then to allow me to nod my head or grunt in acknowledgement, but I began drifting, thinking about when we were kids and the time we’d jumped on the back of the M-14 when city buses had huge rear fenders, and you could hitch a free ride. He’s talking and I’m remembering hanging onto the back of that bus. We’d thought it was going to turn down Avenue A but instead it had continued east on 14th Street before turning down Avenue D. And just as we were both starting to lose our grip, Henry had said jump, as the bus slowed down at the traffic light. We’d landed on our backs, in the middle of the street, laughing and thrilled and scared. Henry is now on a roll, referring to himself in the third person as Lord Henry. He is saying something about finding beautiful meaning in beautiful things, and I’m remembering the afternoon we were playing ball at the playground on 19th Street when the Daily News photographer walked up to us. The guy had said something about a series of articles on race relations and asked if he could take a photo of the two of us in a wrist-wrestling pose. We’d said sure and the next week a long article had come out with the title “When the Melting Pot Turns Into a Blast Furnace.” Opposite the article was a full page photo of our arms entwined, my skinny white arm dwarfed by Henry’s brown bulging biceps, and our hands locked in an embrace. I’d tacked the newspaper page with our photo onto the cork bulletin board in the bedroom that I shared with my brother. Henry’s waving a shot glass now saying to cure the soul by means of the senses and I’m remembering singing Beatles songs with him in a subway station at four in the morning with two girls we’d met at a downtown club, TR3.

In the space of a few minutes, countless escapades flashed through my mind. Then I heard Henry saying how the only thing one never regrets is one’s mistakes. What the hell was he talking about? I remember the little schoolyard on Third Street and standing by helplessly as one of the Dynamite Brothers beat Henry up, kicking him in the face again and again. And then he’d gotten bigger, and Henry became my protector. There’d come a day, maybe around the age of 15, when thanks to my friend, I would have free reign of any schoolyard. Henry is saying how art is useless but at least there is beauty and he is pointing to a young lady at the bar who he has promised to escort home. And he walks up to the bar, takes her by the arm and then he's gone.

Afterwards a friend said to me: “Didn’t you know? How could you not know? Everyone knew.” Little kids in the playground who’d heard all the stories about Henry now cursed at the mention of his name. My mother just shook her head. “Such a waste. He was a special one,” she said. As time passed, people talked less and less. I heard stories about Henry borrowing money and not paying it back. Someone saw him walking down the street carrying a television set. Someone else said he was on the mend and in a program at Phoenix House or Odyssey House.

After that night at the bar, I saw him once at a party accompanied by another resident from his rehab center who was supposed to keep tabs on him. Henry was drinking water and talking about God. But it couldn’t have been more than a few months after the night at Vazacs before he disappeared again. Henry was gone.

That fall I started law school and spent most weeknights studying and watching late night television. I’d just gotten cable hooked-up and had discovered the bizarre world of 1980s public access TV. There were incomprehensible talk shows. One of them featured Tuli Kupferberg, an old long-faced East Village beatnik poet, smoking pot, spouting aphorisms, singing badly and reading poems about Jewish mystics. On Channel J, a show called “Midnight Blue” featured sexual encounters and furious rants by its host, the pornographer Al Goldstein, about Bloomingdales, Santa Claus, the Manhattan DA, and various restaurants. It was a kind of X-rated consumer reports.

But there were also televised Knicks games. The team was awful that year with the exception of Brooklyn’s Bernard King. Through losing game after losing game only Bernard shined. Bernard with his magical quick release jump shot. Bernard driving to the basket, scoring and getting fouled. Only he could animate the Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert. “Yes, and it counts!” Marv would exclaim, and his excitement would rouse me just before I would doze off on the couch in front of the TV, remote clicker in my hand.

Those were my weeknights. Law books and TV. Contemplating questions of liberty, equality and due process followed by hectoring from Al Goldstein, soulful laments from Tuli Kupferberg and exclamations from Marv Albert. Jewish voices intertwined with images of people fucking and the Knickerbockers losing badly.

It’s February and the Knicks are playing the Lakers of Kareem, Magic, Worthy and Michael Cooper and somehow it’s a close game. Bernard is doing his thing but so are the other Knicks. Pat Cummings? I’m working my way through a six pack of Bass Ale. A tremendous Knickerbocker performance, but still I can’t keep my eyes open.

Suddenly I’m standing on the back fender of a city bus barreling down Avenue D. Henry is there too, both of us barely hanging on with our freezing fingertips tucked into the wedge of space between the back panel and rear window. The bus slows down and we jump. We land safely. But there’s a gang of kids from the Wald Houses running right at us. They have chains and swords, and are screaming at the top of their lungs. We take off running, heading west, as fast as we can. As we are crossing the Avenue a truck hits us. Thump. But it’s all right because instead of being crushed we’re transported right into the ball game.

There we are at Madison Square Garden. Sitting courtside is Tuli Kupferberg and Al Goldstein. “Margolies, the wandering Jew,” Tuli sings out. Goldstein’s smoking a fat cigar. He asks how I like law school. “Liberty, Equality, Bohemia,” Tuli shouts out. “Due process,” Goldstein says, laughing and holding both hands out as if he’s in handcuffs about to taken away. Henry’s laughing too and then the Knicks coach Hubie Brown is yelling at us. “Come on, now. Get in there.” He’s taking out Louis Orr and Rory Sparrow and putting me and Henry in the game. Magic looks confused. What the hell is going on here? Hubie calls timeout and I overhear Kareem talking about jazz with Kupferberg. When the game resumes, I bring up the ball. Passing half court, I see Henry dashing to the basket and toss him the ball. He’s up above the rim ready to catch it and then... For a split-second, just a flicker of a moment, I see Henry on the TV screen and then he’s gone. Marv exclaims, “Yes and it counts!”

Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn. He is the General Counsel for America at The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest media company.

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§ One Response to “Below 14th”

  • Larry says:

    Very nice description of the neighborhood in the 80′s. I worked at nyu and spent a lot of time there.

§ Leave a Reply

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