Village Cowboys

by

01/20/2002

W 11th St & Bleecker St, New York, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

During my junior year of high school my mother announced to me that I was unfit to be lived with. I was rude, obnoxious, wild, irritating, irresponsible, undisciplined, unpleasant, and ungrateful. I was therefore to make arrangements to move in with my father and his new wife at the soonest possible date.

I was being released from my mother’s sprawling Upper West Side digs, crowded with siblings, my mother’s new husband and new baby. There I had the life sentence of sharing a cavernous bedroom with my slightly younger sister. The space did not compensate for the clamor I endured nor the privacy I lacked and so urgently craved.

My father lived in a fourth floor walk up railroad apartment in the West Village. Arriving downtown with my precious belongings I was given a sliver of space in what can only be considered a glorified hallway. The apartment stretched the entire length of the narrow tenement style building with an unobstructed, sunny western exposure. Various bumps and indentations were meant to be considered rooms. My area was a four foot by seven foot alcove I could call my own. I was in heaven.

I had successfully convinced my mother of a persona that was utterly unconvincing to my peers. They knew me as a cautious and sensible former Catholic school girl with a quick smile and a mischievous mind. Although not the wild child I dreamed of being, I was graced with enough wit and style to gain peripheral access to all the coolest social groups in school. Upon moving downtown my status improved considerably. Not only had I been thrown out of my mother’s house, a fate reserved for the truly incorrigible, but I was now living in the Village.

It was the early 70’s and the Village was clinging to its frayed reputation as a bohemian outpost. The heyday of the beats was long past and the colorful artists and writers were looking a bit drab to my critical eye. Christopher Street was still operating under clandestine conditions, offenders punished with jail sentences. Our neighborhood in the far West Village, embraced the western point of Bleecker Street, and Abingdon square. Scattered among the aging artists were working class Italian families. Some had been local residents for several generations. Our corner, 11th and Bleecker, boasted a mildly menacing teenage gang who drank beers and made-out on the hoods of cars at night. Bleecker Park was bleak and treeless. The playground had minimal cinderblock climbing equipment surrounded by sand. A smattering of local kids could be found there in the warm weather making full use of the sprinkler. It was years before homeless transvestite drag queens would be routinely chased out of that cooling spray by upwardly mobile yuppie mothers, who demanded the parks department erect the formidable gate that now surrounds the park.

My father’s attitude towards me was one of benign neglect. I was free to come and go as I pleased, receiving no interference from him. The important life lessons he bestowed upon me were how to stand up straight, how to fend off a rapist, how to get a complete college education paid for entirely by financial aid and what bar in the neighborhood I was never ever to set foot in. It was the Buffalo Roadhouse, an odd shaped horizontal building on Seventh Ave. South (more recently and briefly the location of the Time Café).

I never did set foot in it. The worst I could imagine was drunken old men trying to pick up teenage girls. How boring.

It was a blissful time. I could hibernate undisturbed in my alcove, defined by my single bed and a few inches of floor space. Lying there for hours I daydreamed about the boy from school I had been madly in love with since freshman year, this boy that I could barely speak to when in his company and who I could never look in the eyes, he captured every moment of my waking dreams. My fantasies consisted of us being married, he lying on the couch in a drugged out stupor while I floated around him in a long, loose skirt, tending to our multi-racial babies.

On weekends I would invite my best friend Lea and any available hanger-on with nothing better to do to come downtown. We would head over to 18th street to the Elgin movie theater, now the Joyce theater, and watch all-night movies. Slinking in at midnight, we’d find seats among the scattered, solitary men. Sitting there for hours we’d watch four feature length films in a row and smoke endless cigarettes. Such things were allowed then.

The selections were unforgettable, sordid classics like El Topo and The Last House on the Left. Woozy and staggering at 9AM the next morning, eyes stinging from smoke and projected images, we’d head back to my place and pile up on my single bed to sleep. Not rousing till 3PM we would spend the afternoon making the clothing and jewelry we were going to wear out on the streets that night. Risqué evening entertainment for 16 year olds was limited to The Fire House, a gay club at some long forgotten downtown location, which sponsored dances. It had a low key atmosphere, no one checked ID at the door, and it was devoted to playing the latest disco music. We’d dance for hours, lost in the crowd of sweating moving bodies, waiting for them to play anything by Donna Summer.

The weekend routine seemed to satisfy our consuming fascination and aspiration towards the decadent lifestyle we had conjured from Ziggy Stardust. We were marking time till the arrival of punk and new wave, only a few years away.

Daily life in the apartment was a quiet affair. My sweet-natured, mild-mannered stepmother from upstate NY, also a former Catholic school girl, would listen to my prattle about the dramas at high school. She always seemed fascinated by the things going on in my life. I was unaccustomed to such adult attention. Most evenings she and my father and I would have dinner together. He was a great story teller and conversationalist, with a sharp mind and a wonderful sense of humor. An anti-establishment rebel and hard- core lefty working as a grant writer for poverty programs, he always had unique, heated opinions about politics. The 70’s offered abundant opportunities to rail against the powers that be. Bottom line, he considered just about everyone to be a horse’s ass. My stepmother would occasionally attempt to temper his comments in deference to me. Useless. Many nights my father would not be home by dinner time. On those evenings my stepmother would casually ask if I wanted to stroll around the neighborhood with her to see if we could find him. I would always readily agree, anticipating an adventure into the underbelly.

The first spot we’d check was The Alamo, a bar for hard drinkers at 8th Avenue and 12th street, now long gone. We’d walk in and scan the familiar faces. The familiar faces of alcoholism. The women in particular would fascinate me . It seemed particularly unfair that they wore the ravages of alcohol harder than the men. I came to recognize the worn, glazed look around the eyes, the complexions as gray as their hair, the expression of great gentleness layered over infinite disappointments. Lost and fragile and old beyond their years, it is a look I have grown to know anywhere.

Continuing our search we’d head along West 4th Street to the Corner Bistro. West 4th was dotted at that time with tiny grocery stores. Most of the store owners knew my stepmother and greeted her as we passed. The atmosphere in The Bistro was a bit more lively than The Alamo. The regulars were grouped around the bar, my father in the center, holding forth with an amusing tale, nursing a cigar and a rum and coke. Bar stools would be vacated for us to join him and I’d thrill at the forbidden adult treat of sitting at the bar, well under drinking age. Such things were allowed then.

I’d order a coke, hold the rum, and absorb the storytelling and the ambient characters. One of the regulars who was a particular friend of my father’s was a rakishly handsome man named Billy. All I knew of Billy was that he was a railroad man. I have no idea what he did for the railroad, but my imagination saw him laying tracks or blowing the whistle as he steered the train around a particularly dangerous curve. Billy was tall and broad shouldered, with glossy black hair and a chiseled chin. He seemed ageless and very manly. He was always courteous and gallant to my stepmother and me.

Billy and my father made a striking pair, both tall and good looking. They fancied themselves cowboys of a forgotten era, lawless and swaggering in their jeans and cowboy boots. Never mind that they were in the heart of New York City. They were courtly towards women, and emotionally remote. An irresistible combination.

On a typical evening, we females would listen to the men as they drank and talked We would giggle and smile at their stories. Finally I’d sense the growing tension as my stepmother would gently suggest leaving.

Usually my father, with feigned irritation, would grumble about “the little woman” and departs with us. But there were many evenings when we couldn’t get him to budge and my stepmother would indicate to me that we were to leave without him. We’d wander back up 4th street in defeated, contemplative silence at 6:30 in the evening.

Without much fanfare I graduated from high school, packed my bags and skeptically slouched off to college. My father assured me I would end up a cashier at Woolworth’s if I didn’t go. His marriage lasted no longer than my sophomore year away. He sent a note to my college dorm informing me that he was moving out.

Surprisingly, he went off to start another family. My stepmother decided to return upstate. She offered me the lease on the apartment and after college graduation I moved back in. I have spent the last 25 years there, through roommates, courtship, marriage, two pregnancies and my own divorce. My children and I make do with this rent controlled space, the rent, just this past year, brushing the half grand mark. It is home.

My father died 13 years ago. He was riddled with cancer, diagnosed in August and dead by that December, when I was nine months pregnant with my first child.

I never set foot in the Corner Bistro. I think of it as the place where my father drank himself to death, not unlike Dylan Thomas at The White Horse Tavern, only a few blocks away. Oddly enough, my father never favored that place. Recently I was walking along West 4th street when I caught a glimpse of someone who looked a lot like Billy. I hadn’t seen more than the occasional glimpse of him since my father’s funeral. He was heading towards The Bistro. I followed him by eye to see where he would go. Certain it was him, I noticed that he was still robust and handsome, looking not a day older than he had 30 years ago. I saw him walk past the entrance to the bar and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then he turned the corner and slipped in the back door at 9:30 in the morning.

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