In a galaxy far far away: The East Village Years



Neighborhood: East Village, Lower East Side, Murray Hill

Some prescribe the medicine of looking forward not back; don’t dwell on the past they advise, move along. Usually a proponent of such sentiment, I found it diminished when my attention was redrawn to an almost forgotten tale that I’d penned about my early life in New York. A story of the kid fresh off the boat, told by a guy now old enough to be his father. 

The piece had been filed in the bottom drawer of a cabinet marked “trash” after receiving an icy reception from its intended reader Mr. B (he has a website you know). Having found new legs of encouragement, it has crawled back to my desk and, like a dog after a beating, looked up at me with begging eyes, tempting me back to NYC circa 1990. 


It was a Sunday night, maybe Monday morning.

I had just arrived in New York on the shuttle bus from JFK on the 11th of November 1990. The reason that I remember this date is because it was my friend Iain’s birthday, not that he could yet be considered a friend. We’d gone to the same university but hardly knew each other. He’d offered me a place to crash and a vague hookup for a job and that was enough of a green light to get on a plane from England and give New York a go. I’d been there before, sporting a ponytail and Doc Marten boots and thought I was pretty cool. It made sense to arrive on the evening of my junior host Iain’s birthday. No doubt there would be some sort of party and drinks, a double celebration of his being a year older and my groundbreaking arrival in Manhattan. Senior host Leopold, in whose apartment we were staying, had suggested that I come over that day. He met me off the bus with a vodka and tonic poured out of a silver pitcher. I’d arrived; alert the press.

The birthday boy was not in attendance when we got to the apartment in Murray Hill. He was finishing up his shift at Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor in the Village where he worked for extra cash to subsidize his art work. That was fine, maybe he’d gone out for a drink after work. We could break bread upon his return. That turned out to be long after I fell asleep, around 2 a.m. The hour came drowsily into focus as a flashing red number on a clock radio whilst the noise of a foot kicking the apartment door rattled me back to consciousness. Obscenities were passed back and forth. Leopold was mad that Iain had gone on the lash with work buddies instead of coming immediately home to toast happy returns with a middle-aged man and the new kid.

After what seemed like an age, Iain gained entrance and shook my hand as if nothing had happened. Just the usual New York evening. So much for the big party. The newly arrived world traveler felt like a mouse lost at sea. What on earth had I got myself into? It turned out to be the perfect introduction to the madness that was life in New York City in the early 90’s.

The next morning we cabbed it down to Katz’s Deli. Leopold joked with the staff that he’d brought in a couple of goys as we inhaled pastrami sandwiches washed down with celery soda. That’s where Harry met Sally and you tell the waiter to bring you what she’s having.

This was a time before New York became clean—the pre-Giuliani and Bloomberg city. Dealers sold drugs openly in door wells of the Lower East Side and Alphabet City. Bars had names like Downtown Beirut, the Village Idiot, and Mars Bar. Don’t forget to Save the Robots. My roommate took me to happy hour at the Telephone Bar to explain that everyone in New York was a cold blooded killer on the make and only cared for themselves; to survive you had to be a bastard. I was upset and shocked and probably considered getting the next flight home.

Back then East 36th Street was a sleepy residential zzz’s-ville and not the preferred location for young men on a mission. Even though the apartment was “very New York” to my eyes and ears (on a high floor surrounded by 24/7 sounds of the city), we needed to be in the epicenter of New York’s cutting edge and that, as far as we were concerned, was the East Village. Iain and I plotted our escape and took over a lease from my co-worker (the hookup had resulted in a job running food from the kitchen to customers at Jerry’s 103 on 2nd Ave and 6th St). We figured we could cover the $700 a month rent, which was made even easier when the water stopped and so did our rent checks to the landlord. A one-bed railroad loft with the living room functioning as a second bedroom was perfect for us, even though upon exiting the building you had to run to Avenue B (we were close to the corner of C) and then jog to Avenue A before feeling safe again.

We still visited the original apartment in midtown hosting art parties to sell Iain’s paintings to lawyers and bankers, with Leopold acting as his agent and working the crowd to make a sale. Quentin Crisp, who reputedly would attend the opening of an envelope, got rolled out for these events even though most of the crowd probably had no idea who he was. Ironically, he was more famous back in England for being the outrageous author of The Naked Civil Servant and being played by John Hurt in the film of the same name than he was in his adopted home. Most party guests had no clue that Sting’s Englishman in New York was the effete gentleman sporting bouffant blue-dyed hair standing next to them and scoffing free bagels and lox.

One instant I’d been sent to collect Mr. Crisp from his East 3rd Street studio in order to make sure he arrived on time at the correct reception destination, and another evening we ended up dining together. He was charming and good party fodder, but having left an event would have no idea that the person standing next to him at the bus stop was a fellow attendee who he’d just talked to for 30 minutes. In all fairness, he was probably 81 at the time. Stories got crossed and hilariously the rumor mill back in Blighty came up with the tale that I had moved to America and shared accommodation with Quentin Crisp. Quentin wouldn’t have minded; he was never one to shy away from scandal.

Leopold, who then was in his early 50s, had come into a sizable inheritance as a young man when his father died prematurely, and he was hoping to repeat the trick with his mother. He’d lived, as far as I could tell, in decreasingly glamorous abodes and sold off his antique furniture in the process, both for the income stream and due to the lack of space. Over the years he’d gone from a swanky Upper East townhouse to a one bedroom in Murray Hill.

He’d purportedly attended an elite Ivy League School and travelled frequently to the U.K. picking up a penchant for all things English along the way. “Dress British think Yiddish” was one of his favorite aphorisms; I have to admit it’s a good one. As far as I could tell, he’d never actually had a traditional job. His bank account had given him the freedom to play at whatever took his fancy, being it gallery work or charitable fundraising. As his resources dwindled, he kept his childhood and college friends close, especially one lady who via lucrative marriages lived on 5th Ave upstairs from Mary Tyler Moore (these wealthy neighbors kept in litigious contact by suing each other over invasive apartment renovations,) The pot he had to pee in was getting smaller and smaller but these associates could be called upon for favors—to host soirees and display their homes to impressionable out-of-towners such as myself.

Iain and Leopold showed me art and New York networking, but unfortunately their love/hate relationship ended badly with each thinking the other had taken advantage of him. For the record, Leopold thought that Iain was the next Picasso, although his view was hardly unbiased. To this day I am still grateful to Leopold for taking me in when I first moved to the city and for introducing me to old buddies such as Alain, the Frenchman (with whom I ran a bistro), and Angus McIndoe, celebrity restauranteur and more Scottish than porridge. Leopold and I keep in occasional contact, but I haven’t had the heart to ask him if his mother’s still alive.

I worked at Jerry’s (now Mighty Quinn’s); then Amici-Miei in Soho (it’s now a Dos Caminos) with a bunch of crazy Italians; a small place in the West Village (now Cafe Cluny); a supper club on the UES (defunct); and was one of the opening crew of Park Avenue Cafe (now Vaucluse), under chef David Burke who would become quite well known. If you want to get a feel for the atmosphere, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential nails what it’s like working in a hectic restaurant.

Later, the silver prose of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker led me down a road to finance classes and miraculously a job as a derivative’s broker. It didn’t hurt that by divine coincidence one of the investors of Jerry’s happened to be a principal of the firm that took me on. I ended back in London for four years and have been in New York full time ever since and even owned my own restaurant along the way (don’t do it). Interestingly when my current job gets manic, the closest thing I’ve experienced to that is being in a jammed restaurant kitchen or dining room, marginally one step ahead of anarchy and chaos with one foot “in the weeds” and one out of them. All  these experiences, however, might not have happened if one late night fracas had turned out differently.

Sometime after midnight, about a year after I’d arrived in town, I scuffled along the street semi-inebriated, walking from my girlfriend’s apartment to my own. It wasn’t far and it wasn’t apparent why I had left, as no doubt I had nothing to do that early the next day (nothing ever happened early). Whatever motivation had propelled me on a late-night beeline back home got frozen as I crossed 6th St and Avenue B. A kid who made this kid look like a grown up ran across the street and pulled out a gun from under his white sweater. He was looking for money (the so called Laundromat open-air drug emporium was a block away) and asked for my cash. Keeping decorum consistent with behavior in such situations, I stuck my hands in the air.

“Put your hands down man.”

“Sorry I’ve never been mugged before.”

Once my arms had been returned to the downward direction, he took my take ($5) and my watch, before lodging a complaint that I hadn’t handed over loose change (it’s so hard being a neophyte in any situation, especially a stick up). He then told me to walk away and not look back. I got home feeling like I’d had an out of body experience, and friends for years have laughed over my anecdote of my hands being held aloft like a cartoon character.

* * *

A circuitous route brought me back to ponder about what might have been that night. I read a review about a book on Salinger—the author Mr. Beller teaches at my son’s college and has a site with stories about New York. That led me to reflect about my own early days in the city. I was lucky not to have been seriously hurt or killed that evening. If some nervous kid had decided to shoot, rather than shake me down, I could have just been another statistic. I wouldn’t have moved to London, then back the to the East Village (around the corner from Iain who never left), and, in time, got married, had kids, and settled on the Upper East Side. I’m so lucky that things didn’t turn out for the worse.

Iain was very productive with art, music, and poetry in his 20’s and still involved at a slower pace in his 30’s and 40’s. The self-confidence he exuded convinced him and his clients that he was going to be a major artist. He sold a lot of paintings in New York in the early 90’s, and I was along for the ride. Sadly he passed away in 2013 at the age of 46. With his death we all lost out, and the closing chapter of our years in downtown New York was written.

My day-to-day existence now is much more pedestrian than in those early times and thankfully so. I run, I read, I work and attempt to be a father and pay the mortgage, but I’m glad to have had those East Village (perhaps formative) experiences.

I do wonder sometimes if the mugger from 1991 or 1992 ever changed his ways and became a reformed character? If that is the case and he is by chance reading this, can I get my bloody watch back?


Rupert Martin is from Birmingham, England and has lived in New York for over 20 years. He works as a foreign exchange broker and resides on the Upper East Side with his family.

(photo by:  Thomas Angermann)

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