Looking for John Belushi 

by

08/07/2022

Neighborhood: Bowery, SoHo, Tribeca, Union Square

The Blues Brothers: Dan Akroyd and John Belushi

It may be ever-present, this sense that we are teetering on the edge of apocalypse, but these days it seems the custodians of volatile and otherwise crazy behavior are on a whole new level.

I won’t pretend that when I was in my 30s and running around on weekend nights with my friends that we were never in danger, never putting our lives at risk. There certainly were random folks out there who were bat shit crazy. However, in the years from the late 1970s to early ’90s, when I lived on the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery, I recall only one incident of live gunfire. Maybe my friends and I were just lucky that nothing ever happened to us. The gods gave us a break, allowing us to test the limits.

My memories of Friday and Saturday evenings are of such hectic and unfocused mayhem that they unfurl in technicolor: a cartoon-like pastiche of city nightlife. Of course, whichever friend or cohort I started out with had to be factored into the general ambiance, destination, and quality of the adventure.

One night comes to mind as a fairly mellow, routine example of those weekend nights. I met up with a friend who had a loft on the west end of 14th street. The plan had been to grab something to eat at her place, get dressed, and go dancing at the Palladium, just east of Union Square. This friend was a lovely person, but her thought processes were anything but linear. She had asked me to come over around 8 p.m. and bring several items of my clothing in case she didn’t have anything of her own that she felt like wearing. When I arrived with my bag of fashion options, she was stoned and in the process of making a beautiful composed salad for us, as carefully balanced in color and light and shadow as an old master painting. I rarely smoked weed, didn’t like what it did to me; but I accepted a glass of wine. 

Three hours later, I encouraged her to start thinking about getting dressed so we could head over to the Palladium. I’d had several glasses of wine by then and was almost ready to go home and go to sleep. She was still stoned and decided that the outfit she really wanted to wear included the blouse I had on. So I gave it to her and chose another for myself from my stash. At about midnight we left her loft and strolled across 14th street to the Palladium. The rest of the evening is a blur: I remember looking for celebrities, trying to be sparkly, dancing to a disco tune that seemed to go on for a week, and finally, as politely as possible, making my exit. 

*****

The night we went looking for John Belushi was far more interesting – or at least had the potential to be. The primary mover on that evening was another loft-dwelling friend. His place was in lower Manhattan, near the Ear Inn and the Holland Tunnel. It was huge, with high ceilings, the interior cleverly assembled from street finds of building materials, furniture, and decorative items, as well as firewood to keep the unheated living space tolerable throughout the winter. This was not a marginal or unusual way to live in 1982, and his loft was exceptionally well built, with a craftsman’s skill and an artist’s eye. On weekends, friends and strangers just showed up there, bringing food, wine, and musical instruments. It was not unusual for me to drop by and recognize people from several different eras of my life – from college in Massachusetts, or different jobs I’d had around the city. It was always fun to try and figure out how people knew each other and how they’d ended up at the loft on a given Saturday night.

There had been a rumor going around, according to friends of my loft-dweller friend, that Belushi had a hideaway. No one knew exactly where, but purportedly it was around the southern edge of Soho, northern reach of Tribeca. He was a legendary figure in those days, mostly for his work on Saturday Night Live, and had a notorious reputation for excess. Like Belushi, although on a decidedly smaller scale, many of the people I hung out with then had turned to cocaine. My artsy friends couldn’t afford to do it on the level of the Wall Street crowd, but I suspect that coke, or fantasies of scoring some, prompted what turned out to be the goal of the evening: looking for Belushi.

A small group of us set out to find him. I can’t remember everyone who was in the search party, but I was there as was the loft-dweller, along with a couple of other guys I knew. There was also a very pretty but daft young woman with us who had arrived from New England that afternoon because she had fallen in love with a painter who had a show opening in the city that very evening. I had no idea what her connection was to any of my friends, but her goal was to find the gallery. She had not actually ever met Gregory (the artist) before, but had developed an intense passion for him based on his art, which she’d seen on a poster. According to her it was destiny that they meet. 

After an hour or so of fruitless meandering, the excitement we’d felt begin to dissipate. It was getting late, good vibes were bottoming out, and complaints were muttered. My friend stopped to make a phone call. He returned to the crew with cheering news: the person he’d called knew the address of a shack that Belushi liked to duck into through the course of an evening to get high. All we had to do was go there and we’d get to meet him. We tightened up our ranks, our mission validated, and set off for the street mentioned, just two blocks away.

Difficult to believe perhaps, but we did indeed find a shack perched on the side of a bulldozed worksite. It seemed a building on the site had recently been razed. Perhaps the shack had been left intact temporarily to house tools or for some other use, but it fit the general description of what we’d been led to expect. It was bolted shut and was obviously not harboring Belushi, or anyone else. We circled the area and then just stood there awhile, hoping. 

It was late. Hope faded. The young woman in love with the artist she’d never met cajoled one of the guys to take her out for a drink. My friend walked me over to a busier, more brightly lit area of Soho, and I headed for home. 

A month or so later, we heard the devastating news that John Belushi had died from a drug overdose. We genuinely mourned him. He was our age, with a brilliant comic mind and that wonderfully reckless physicality. We felt like we’d known him, almost as though we had found him that night, and hung out, had some laughs and maybe done a few lines.  

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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