On the Steps of Club Salmagundi



E 12th St & 5th Ave, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

In the summer of 1980 I was living on East Fifth Street and First Avenue with Alpha Lorraine and I was eighteen, feeling not so much on top of the world as right in the middle of it. Alpha was a new friend and when Yves, my French dancer friend from when I was a dishwasher at Food Restaurant, went on tour in Europe for a few months, she took over his part of the rent.

We lived in a railroad apartment on the fifth floor, with tons of light and tiny rooms. One flight up, on the roof, we could see the whole city, and in my room, late at night, I went to sleep to our downstairs neighbor’s Spanish lullabies. By day I was a bike messenger at the “Soho Weekly News”, which I thought was a great job, and at night I just hung out with Alpha at punk shows or got too drunk at parties where almost everyone I met seemed to be famous but nobody was.

We were just having fun and no one cared but us. Alpha was a dyke, I guess, but we slept together sometimes, and I think I loved her, not like you love a girlfriend, but in some other way. Her friend Naomi came around sometimes and once she and Naomi and I were walking up First to score some weed at one of the fake storefronts, where you could buy drugs in those days, when we ran into Shaka.

Shaka was a guy from Brooklyn with long dreads and a thin, weathered face who I had met recently on the street and we’d gotten high a few times. Mostly we would hang out in Tompkins Square or just wander the streets, smoking and talking about nothing in particular. He had a wife, I think, and a couple of kids, but he spent his time hustling in the East Village. He was funny in a quiet way and superstitious and good-hearted.

Naomi had become one of my favorite people and she was truly the most spontaneous and unpredictable person I had ever met. I loved being around her and that day we were all feeling pretty good when Shaka came up to us. He and Naomi instantly hit it off. If you’ve never seen someone instantly hit it off it is hard to believe, because it really does happen in an instant. It’s like watching a car go from zero to sixty in three seconds. It’s that fast. One moment they were two strangers and the next, intimate friends. So we all got into Naomi’s car and by then it was night and we drove to New Jersey and parked in a cemetery in Leonia and smoked some weed and I was walking around a bit lost.

We had left Alpha behind so it was just the three of us. I started playing around, whispering spells and conjuring the spirits, but Shaka got freaked out by that and made me stop, and maybe to get back at me or maybe just to do it, he and Naomi took off all their clothes and started running and hiding around the headstones. I thought about getting naked too, but I wasn’t in the mood. All I really cared about in those days was music, and of course girls.

The East Village was different then, no tourists and no money, just people living in a low-key, post-hippie punk kind of place where, unless you were looking for it, trouble usually left you alone. It was so laid back then, and I was just out of high school and I got up late every day, went where I wanted and did what I wanted in a neighborhood that pulsed with sunshine and drugs and music and nights filled with happenstance and color. I could fill a day with walking around doing nothing and feel good about it.

One night late I was walking around and I heard some very cool music coming up from a new restaurant on Sixth Street, right off of First. The place was sort of French and in a cellar you entered by lifting one of those cellar doors you see everywhere and walking down a steep flight of steps. I descended into the tiny restaurant and saw they had a DJ spinning, and she was the sexiest and coolest woman I had ever seen. She had a blonde bouffant and was wearing a green miniskirt, a rayon shirt and white go-go boots.

We kind of hit it off, talking about bands and records and I started wandering in there every night or so. She went to Parsons and she knew a lot more about music than I did. One night I was there late, and she got off work and we had been talking so long we just kept going, and started walking. I don’t remember where we went, but we walked for awhile, I know that, because we wound up outside her apartment building on Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street at around three am, and it was time for her to go. Neither of us seemed to be ready to call it a night so we sat on a stoop and we kept having those silences that first kisses should fill, but something held us back. You might think I was scared, but I wasn’t. It was just so exciting to think about kissing the coolest person I knew that I wanted to prolong it as much as possible.

There we were, on lower Fifth Avenue, at three in the morning, on the steps of the Salmagundi Club, everything was quiet and serene.

Then we were mugged.

About eight or nine teenagers were suddenly there, in our faces, surrounding us. It really seemed as if they appeared out of the air, that’s how blissfully unaware we had been, caught up in our private moment. It had seemed like the safest spot in the world, sitting there on the steps of the Salmagundi, even its exotic name promising some kind of protection from the mundane.

But reality really does have a way of taking over. They got my eighty dollars–a week’s pay I had just cashed–and her bracelet. I stood up at one point, wanting to do something, but one of them punched me in the face and that took the fight right out of me. So I started saying ‘Shaka’ over and over again. I kept saying his name, in a quiet voice, while looking around for help, but the street was empty.

Maybe I thought I could actually conjure up Shaka and that he, somehow, would save us. After all, he was a man who knew some strange things, and he’d know how to get out of this, there had to be a way out of this, somehow, and I did not know the way.

Or maybe I just thought that they’d think I was crazy and leave us alone. Maybe I just lost it.

They left, my jaw hurt, and she was crying. We were alone once more, on the steps of the Salmagundi.

She was very upset about the bracelet, which had been a gift from her mother, and all I had lost was some money and my pride and the chance to kiss the coolest woman I knew, who I never saw again, whose name I cannot now recall.

She went in, and I walked home, back to Fifth Street and First Avenue. I never did see Shaka anymore that summer, and Naomi vanished too, somewhere along the way. Alpha moved away and I moved on and the East Village changed, which is just fine, I guess.

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