The Life and Times of Ricky Powell

by

02/14/2021

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Beasties Charles St Shuffle

I was scrolling through Twitter after midnight a couple of weeks ago when I read that the photographer and New York personality Ricky Powell had died.

The news hit me because as kids we’d spent a lot of time together at the 14th Street Y in afterschool programs. Biddy Basketball and Sportsman’s Clinic, and the intensely competitive, self-contained universe of early adolescent athletic games was our connection. In recent years we resumed a virtual acquaintance, exchanging texts and messages a few times.  So I wouldn’t say we were friends. Still when someone you knew well in your childhood dies at age 59, you think about things.

In the hours that followed the initial report of Ricky’s death, tributes from hip-hop giants, youngblood New York enthusiasts, street photographers, and wannabe hipsters filled social media. Later in the week, lengthy obituaries and appreciations appeared in publications all over the world.

Ricky Powell 1987

Somehow, until a few years ago, I had been entirely unaware of Ricky’s Beastie Boys adventures, his role chronicling rap and hip hop’s early years, and his public access cable television show, “Rapping with the Rickster.”

My brother had kept up a friendship with Ricky a bit longer than I had, and when we talked about our memories and tried to reconcile them with Ricky’s later colorful public personality it was disorienting. “He talks entirely differently,” my brother said somewhat indignantly. Ricky’s middle-aged made-up street patois seemed to me a wonderful cross between Jimmy Cagney and W.C. Fields, a kind of theatrical street smarts, which is not to say it was inauthentic. In Ricky’s case his persona at some point became the person.  

There was also the matter of Ricky’s appearance. As a teenager and young man, he’d been almost unbearably good looking. The hearts of young women and men beat harder in his presence. Middle-aged Rickey was a paunchy guy, with ridiculous looking grey mutton-chop sideburns, who never went out without a baseball cap affixed to his head. We all get old, but for my brother and I, neither of us having seen Ricky for thirty years, his physical transformation was jarring.

It was remarkable to me that his obsessions in 2021, judging by his Instagram and Facebook, remained those of a 13-year-old New York boy born in 1961.

His pantheon of gods was made up of athletes, not the hip-hop superstars he so memorably photographed and befriended. I am not sure he even particularly cared for the music of the acts that he documented. His social media postings establish Ricky’s radio station of choice was Jazz 88, WGBO (Newark). He regarded the Village Vanguard as a neighborhood shrine.

Ricky’s heroes were the sports heroes of our early adolescence—Joe Namath, Pistol Pete Maravich, and, first and foremost, Walt “Clyde” Frazier. The early 1970s Knicks, unlike any other New York team, had a mythical resonance for any city boy who fancied himself a ballplayer. Living alone and untethered to family, Ricky’s eternal boyhood did not seem so strange to me. I have a cat named Clyde and had somehow convinced my wife to name our first-born son Clyde if we ever had a boy. Fortunately, we were blessed with daughters.

The role of sports was central to the sensibility and development of so many New York kids in the ’70s. The utopian and “cool” integrated Knicks teams helped kids attitudinally—and in Ricky’s case on a much deeper level—transcend some of the animosity, segregation, and polarization that was part of the city that decade. The level of open racial antagonism—even in a very liberal neighborhood like Greenwich Village—existed in ways that people a generation removed cannot really understand. One incident from those years that stands out in my memory happened in September 1976, when a very large group of West Village teenagers and young men went on a rampage in Washington Square Park, attacking Black and Hispanic people with pipes and baseball bats, killing a dark-skinned Dominican volleyball player and wounding thirteen others. Ricky never succumbed to the tribalism and territoriality that afflicted many other kids in his neighborhood during those years. I remember seeing him at West 4th Street hanging out with Black kids he went to high school with at Seward Park.

One reason, probably the main reason, we stopped hanging out was that Ricky was a West Village kid and I was a Lower East Side kid. The 14th Street Y was a crossroads for two adjacent neighborhoods that rarely connected. The schools and playgrounds where I lived were inhabited mostly by Puerto Rican kids. The West Village kids were overwhelmingly white. It was unthinkable that Ricky would have wandered all the way east to play ball on the P.S. 63 schoolyard on the block where I lived. And while the West Village streets were safer and gentler than Avenue A, as a fourteen–year-old I would have had some trepidation about showing up to play ball on Horatio Street. 

One of the great things about getting a little older for all of us was being able to walk and explore other neighborhoods, and there are some terrific photos Ricky took as a young adult documenting some of what was happening on the Lower East Side in the 1980s.

Ricky’s temperament is not mentioned in any of the published appreciations that I’ve read. Anger and exasperation drove him and were a part of his charisma. An enduring memory I have of Ricky as a boy is him pounding on a locker again and again for a very long time after losing a basketball game. Another is of him pacing back and forth in a fury outside the Y one evening. When my brother asked Ricky what he was doing, he told us that he was waiting to fight with a boy named Ivan who was a full foot taller than him.

I could sense that same anger in recent years when Ricky, in between feigning puffs on what he described as his “imaginary jazz cigarette,” would rail about the “New Jack Cornballs and rich-ass Hamptons bitches” bogarting (another word from the Powell lexicon) in on the West Village of his childhood. Whether or not his idyllic memories of the “chill” and “bohemian” Village of his childhood were real, I completely understood how he felt when he told me he wished the “rich-ass cornballs would go back to schmucksville.”

One last thing you should know about Ricky. He was good-hearted guy. When my father died four years ago, he messaged me out of the blue, and I have saved what he wrote me. “Sorry to hear, Jacob. I remember playing ball with you at Emanuel Y on East 14th St. in the early 70s. You were a good sportsman. I reckon your father had something to do with that. My thoughts are with you. Stay Up.”

***

Jacob Margolies is the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and a reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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