Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Charlie And His Little Shop Of Miniatures Closed

Another and more recent victim of the gentrification process was Charlie Elkiam. For the last 18 years Charlie had a small shop which sold miniatures at 234 Mulberry Street and as of May, 2005, he announced that he was running a 50% off sale and was closing. It was there that Alison, my daughter, bought her first ceramic dogs imported all the way from England and other European countries. He had an enormous number of glass animals and cast metal soldiers and whole casts of opera characters, all in miniature. He and his wife sold earrings which they made on the premises. It was a pitiful sight to see old Charlie and his wife pack up their small cartons because the store was their life. In the window a sign read, “ Fixtures for Sale.” Charlie and his wife had been around Manhattan for about 45 years. Charlie was very bitter when he had to close because of the rising rents. The store was his whole life and just like that it was over. I bought a miniature Bette Boop figure from him, photographed it and made it into a photo grid and an 8” X 10” print. Not a day after Charlie closed, another tenant was having the place rehabbed. It is now another cute boutique.

George The Ex Marine Is Still Going Strong

Another local character is an ex- World War ll marine captain named George. George and I have taken to sitting on a bench on the corner of Prince and Mulberry Streets to watch the passing scene. One day George was asked to pose nude for a senior deck of cards for gay men. He turned them down. More recently George was asked again to pose nude for a fee of $300.00. He turned them down again. In 2007 George celebrated his 86th or 87th birthday and he is still quite the ladies man. Young women in their twenties and thirties hover around him. Just the other day one of his young girlfriends called him up and told him that she had just emerged from the shower and if he rushed right over they could fool around for a few hours. I’m sure all of his girls want a sugar daddy, but they are also crazy about him. For example, on June 16th of 2006 I was standing on our fire escape and I saw George escorting a gorgeous young woman in a revealing red dress into a waiting taxi. Whatever it is, George has still got “It”. In September of 2006 George went into the hospital for an operation on his colon which gave him an opening for a million stories when he came home. One of them is very funny. Upon leaving, one of the women doctors wished him well but told him in no uncertain terms that because of his condition he would no longer be able to get a hard on. Well, George spread that one all over the neighborhood. I guess all of his many girlfriends will now go into mourning. But with or without a hard on George is still going strong.

Well, that nurse was wrong. I heard from sources that I cannot reveal that as late as February of 2008 George can still get it up. About a year ago one of his more beautiful young girl friends ( she was about thirty ) came around looking for George when he was not home. So we both talked about George. She explained to me that George was not like your typical old man. George was still manly, she said, and had no trouble in the sack. In fact he was better than a lot of men half his age she said. She then said George was funny too and he made her laugh. Having gotten the low down on George’s sexual prowess, she felt she had revealed enough about their torrid relationship.

Shakira, or Key, the beautiful 25- year- old singer who ran the Debra Rodman dress shop at 49 Prince Street right near the corner of Mulberry Street, agreed with me. She told me George had “It.” She figured that to make it in the big apple she needed some of “It,” but did not know how to get it. I told her I could use some of “It” myself but did not know how to get it either. We both agreed that “It” is something you probably have to be born with. Maybe not. It appears that a bit of George’s “It” has rubbed off on Key. On June 9th, 2006, she appeared at a local television station to make a tape for them. This could have been her big break but it was not. She already had one album out but needed more exposure and promotion. She has a group of friends who all keep her company at the store, so a lot of George has certainly been passed on to Key.

George also likes to play cards. A few times a week he goes down the block to a gambling joint and plays poker. George often wins as much as $ 3000.00 in a single sitting. Once he even hit the jackpot for $40,000.00. In late October of 2006 the place was raided and everyone was arrested but George was not there at the time. He’s a very astute player and is thinking about going out to Vegas to play in a tournament. George is a war hero with a box of medals but he never talks about his exploits. You name an island in the Pacific where the marines fought and George was there. He was badly wounded in one battle. George told me that they found 40 pieces of shrapnel around his heart. At Iwo Jima he received a lot of shrapnel in his face. In April of 2006 he had to have an operation on his jaw to remove some shrapnel which had been causing an infection. By May even more shrapnel was bothering him and he still had an infection. George is one tough dude.

He wants to take me to one of the card games down the street but I am such a lousy poker player and gambler in general that I am afraid I would lose my shirt. A few years ago I lost about $80.00 in about one minute in a shell game on Broadway. I was sure I knew where the little ball was, but the hand was faster than the eye. George’s hand is not faster than the eye. Sometime in late April of 2006 George was horsing around with our new puppy, Magic and he got bitten and his hand required seven stitches. I got a shot of his bandaged hand.

On November 14, 2005, George and I were sitting on a storefront bench near the corner of Prince and Mulberry Streets and got kicked off it. The owner said that we were undesirables. Undesirables? We were from the neighborhood and she was not. In fact she was so repulsive that to call her undesirable would be an insult to undesirable people all over the world. In any event, we were told that the bench was for was for customers only. That seems unfair, lots of people sit on the bench during the day. George told the nasty owner, Debra Rodman, just where she could shove her bench. After all, a while ago, when Debra was in a slightly better mood, she put the bench there for George to sit on. These neighborhood dramas would not have taken place in the old days. Back then everyone knew everyone else and many of the shopkeepers lived around here. With gentrification the shopkeepers now live elsewhere and don’t seem to care that much about the locals. Now only the tourist trade counts. She now wants the bench to be used exclusively by husbands and boyfriends while their wives and girlfriends shop inside. Even more recently she has decided to remove the bench. She still thinks we are scaring her customers away. We think it is her second rate and unimaginative merchandise. She closed her shop in February of 2007, and that was that. But before she left she told George that she knew he was carrying on with a number of her now former salesgirls and she did not like it one bit. I think she was jealous because George did not like her and did not make a pass at her. George told me that he found her unattractive. But worst of all she showed her true colors by stiffing Key, the salesgirl, her last paycheck. Talk about repulsive.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Church Is Really Important Around Here

Then there is Monsignor Marinacchi who is retired and is, as of October , 2007 97 years old. He knows everybody in the neighborhood. He used to go to Jo-Anne’s for an espresso and also frequented Buffa’s Deli before it closed. When I sometimes found him at Buffa’s we would sit together and tell jokes. He read my daughter Kate’s scholarly book on St. Mary Magdalene with great interest and asked for a copy of his own. I got a paperback edition for him. He even read the citations in Medieval church Latin. Now he wants to meet Kate the next time she is in New York.

He knows I am not Catholic and said that I was going to burn in hell because I was not converted. On the other hand before I went in for my second triple by-pass he blessed me, and after I came out of the hospital he blessed me again. I asked him why he bothered since I was going to burn in hell and he said well, maybe with the blessings where they put me it won’t be so hot.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Roberta Used To Live On Spring Street But Is No Longer Around

Gwen met Roberta more than twenty years ago. She lived on Spring Street near Prince and often carried an old twin lens Rollei with her. One day Gwen asked her if she were a photographer. She said no, but she was documenting all the movie houses in the city. That day she was off to Queens and hoping to get some good shots. Roberta said that she had a lot of undeveloped film but had not processed any because she did not have a darkroom. Gwen said she could use her darkroom, but Roberta turned down the offer. Gwen was puzzled. All she could get out of Roberta was the comment that she would be heartbroken if some of the shots did not come out. It was then that Gwen began to suspect that she probably did not have any film in her camera. The camera was probably being used as a passport to roam the city and look at all of her beloved movie theatres. Roberta was very vague about her background but Gwen did learn that she was a film buff. Then Gwen lost track of her.

A few years ago Roberta’s image popped up in a film Gwen rented called Cinemania. It was about a small group of New York film buffs. Roberta and her pals spent all their time going to films and film festivals. To them it was not just a hobby or a job, it was a vocation. One thing Roberta and all her friends had in common was their unkempt looks and their shopping bags filled with brochures, reviews, schedules and other literature. Whatever the theatres were giving away they wanted. Included in Roberta’s collection were soda cups with film advertising on them. She had a complete set of plastic dinosaur cups from a Stephen Spielberg movie and was very proud of them.

Watching Cinemania made it clear that none of the film buffs who were featured had any lives at all outside of going to films. One of them admitted that he had inherited a small legacy from a relative and that if he were careful with the money he could do nothing but go to movies full time for the rest of his life. In one way or another, all of them agreed that what the rest of us call reality was boring and of no interest to them. In the course of the film one of them said, “ What’s left after seeing a great film but a trip home? ” From looking at their lives via the documentary, I had to agree with them that films were infinitely superior to the real world that they had thus far experienced.

What would Plato have made of such people? The philosopher claimed that what we see all around us is an illusion and we are like people chained in a cave watching shadows flickering before us on a wall and thinking that they are real. Feature films, for all their fascination, are merely copies of copies. And yet here are people who revel in the fact that they are utterly enchanted by these flickering illusions and who have no desire to free themselves from their mania because they find the world outside the cinema dull, uninspiring and utterly without interest.

According to an employee of MOMA Roberta became such a pest that she was eventually banned from the museum’s film openings after she had tried to choke a ticket taker for tearing her ticket in half. It turned out that Roberta had kept all her ticket stubs intact from the time she began going to movies and accused the ticket taker at MOMA of trying to ruin her life. Then Roberta took to wearing disguises and tried to sneak into MOMA showings but she was always spotted and escorted out. When I was renting Cinemania the woman at the video store on Elizabeth Street said she knew Roberta from various film festivals and she was the most obnoxious person on the face of the planet. Everyone who goes to see films on a regular basis knows Roberta and has stories about her. For example, when I told Peter Koper about her he said that when he went to see an obscure foreign film with John Waters, there was Roberta taking copious notes. Her comment was that the film was not commercial.

One of the other film buffs said he sometimes longed for a real date but his fantasy girl was Rita Hayworth who satisfied him completely because she was flat and was mostly in black and white. The real flesh and blood Rita, were she still alive and in her prime, would have held little or no interest for him. Poor Rita. She used to say that she had the same trouble with men in her real life. She could never live up to her celluloid image in their eyes. What a fate.

In the course of the film Roberta confessed that she absolutely adored the last scene of A Farewell To Arms starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. In it Helen Hayes dies in the arms of Cooper and just before the fade out we see what looks like hundreds of white doves flying towards Heaven. You could see that Roberta was deeply moved by what she had just seen. She looked as if she were holding back tears when she blurted out that it was obvious that Helen Hayes had to die because Gary Cooper loved her more than he loved God. God, being very jealous, had to kill off Helen Hayes according to Roberta.

Perhaps one of Roberta’s dreams will come true and, through the magic of films, she will be absorbed and transported into the very matrix of cinema where her youth will be restored so that she can play out the rest of her life on the Silver Screen. She just might be lucky enough to be cast in the role of Helen Hayes in A Farewell To Arms and be able to expire in the strong and loving arms of Gary Cooper, and then her immortal soul would be escorted to Heaven by hundreds of white doves. A lady could do a lot worse.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vinny Vella Is The Uncrowned King Of Elizabeth Street

Vinny Vella is another neighborhood character. He was born in Greenwich Village and has lived on Elizebeth Street for many years.Vinny made a career for himself as an actor in commercials, televesion shows and movies as the archetypal wise- guy from Elizabeth Street. You don't want to know what Vinnie did before he became an actor.He can be seen in the films, " Casino", " Ghost Dogs" and many others. He can also be seen as Jimmy Petrille on " The Sopranos". In addition there is also a short film about Vinnie and his life. Vinny has lots of great stories. One of them involves, of all things, the ring of King Tut. Somehow Vinny got hold of the ring of King Tut and was wearing it around town. How could such an improbable thing happen? Well, all I can say is that it probably fell off the back of a truck. You heard it right, Vinny had the ring of King Tut. But Vinny, being one of the good guys, decided to give it back so he made some calls and arranged for a drop. When he arrived at the designated spot Vinny claims that it was filled with cops and even the F.B.I. Everybody had a gun and they were all pointed at Vinnie's head. Vinny was bewildered. What did they think, that he went into the museum and when nobody was looking removed the ring from the mummy? He never did such a thing. Vinny said that a street vendor sold it to him. Who was it? How would Vinny know? He was just a guy. " Hey", Vinny said " I'm the good guy, I'm giving the ring back ." All I can say is that somehow the case was resolved and now it has become one of Vinny's best stories.

Vinny has even made a audio tour cd which you can buy and listen to him tell you all about the old neighborhood. The audioguide or soundwalk covers Little Italy and a color photograph of Vinny with a big fat cigar sticking out of his mouth is on the cover. Toni Rosa of Buffa's is featured on the tape along with Momo the butcher. There is also a picture of Buffa's on the inside jacket of the cd. The latest news is that Vinnie has opened a pizza joint in Brooklyn.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Elisha Shot Kam The Alien Six Times But Not with A Camera

Elisha tried to get even with Kam the Alien for killing Bocvana and then turning her into a Replicant so he got out his.357 Magnum and loaded it with six hollow point lead tipped bullets. That should take her out big time he thought. Then he waited for her to appear. He knew she would.

Then, as he was sitting at his desk, she appeared looking like a million bucks. She had morphed into the gorgeous figure of Kathleen the Mannequin and she had animated her. Kathleen was wearing an alluring see through blouse and did she ever have beautiful breasts. She was clearly looking for some action. But before she had a chance to speak Elisha said that he wanted to make some demands of his own. First off he wanted $50 million dollars deposited in a Trust Account in his name and that it had to be backdated. She looked at him and laughted. That's impossible she said.

OK, Kam, Elisha said, he would show her exactly what was possible and what was impossible. Then Elisha pulled out the .357 and pumped five bullets into her soft belly. She fell to the floor and started to bleed. Elisha went over to her inert body and felt for a pulse. There was none. For good measure he pumped the last shot into her head and he saw pieces of her skull and brain fly out in all directions. It was a mess. Blood and gore were spalatted all over the place. She was dead all right. Elisha hoped that the clean up would not be too difficult.

But luck was not running with Elisha that day. No sooner had he determined that Kam was really dead than he was amazed to see that the bloody wounds were healing themselves before his eyes. In a few moments she was alive and kicking again and she was not even upset. She said that she had gotten quite a thrill out of being shot and that it was almost as good as sex. Now how kinky can you get? She added that I could not kill her and that being shot turned her on. So with that she took Elisha off to some fleabag hotel on 25th Street and they fucked out brains out for hours. Elisha thought all the while about the puzzling connection between sex and death. Elisha had lost another round to Kam , but the sex was out of this world, literally. Elisha had to formulate a new plan if he was ever going to get rid of Kam.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It's A Long Way From Zanzibar To Spring Street

It is hard to imagine a real life love story unfolding itself on the walls of 11 Spring Street in December of 2006, but it did and what you are about to read is true.

Unfortunately the story does not have a happy ending. As many people in the neighborhood know , 11 Spring Street had become a a legendary street art shrine and as of June 2007 the exterior was still covered with some some works of art, but the process of removing them had already begun.

During the fall and winter and well into 2007 I was busy photographing the ever changing site. It was there in December of 2006 that I discovered a small handwritten love note taped to the wall. It was evident from the content of the note that a woman named Ida had fallen in love with one of the street artists whose work was on display outside the building. I met Ida at 11 Spring Street several days before I found and photographed her love note. When I first saw her she was photographing the Elizabeth Street side of the building. We got to talking and I found out that she was a street art fan from England who came to New York twice a year to look at the street art in Manhattan and Brooklyn. On one of her trips she saw the work of an artist using the tag of Faile and had fallen in love with him. At that time she did not know that Faile was a crew and she did not even know if he was a male. She found out all of that a little later when both of us were talking to a graffiti artist who used the name of Rambo. He told us about the Faile crew and said that one of them was a woman. Ida asked how she could get in touch with them and he made a few calls on his cell phone and came up with nothing. Much later I found out that two members of the crew are named Patrick.

After failing to find out more about the Faile crew we walked around lower Manhattan looking at the street art. Both of us were intent on photographing whatever was out there. Then she was off to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and we said goodby after exchanging email addresses. She wanted to be alerted if I met any of the Faile crew in my daily walks around lower Manhattan. At that time I did not know that she was going to leave a love note taped to the wall at 11 Spring Street.

After she left for Williamsburg and then went back to England I put Ida out of my mind. A few days later I went back to 11 Spring Street to see if anything new had gone up and I saw a small group of people looking at something on the Elizabeth side of the building. I went up to the crowd and asked if I could have a look. They cleared a path for me and it was then that I saw, read and photographed Ida's love note. I posted the photo on my Flickr web site because it had become a part of the story of 11 Spring Street. I also thought that perhaps a member of the Faile crew would see it. The latter turned out to be a false hope.

Soon after uploading the photo I got a frantic email from Ida in England. She was in a tizzy because I had photographed her love note and had posted it on my Flickr site. She said that people who saw it would think that she was crazy. I wrote back and pointed out to her that she had left her note in a public place and in fact when I photographed it a group of people were busy reading it and none of them thought she was crazy. I told her that most of the people thought that the note was sweet. That calmed her down a bit. She said in a subsequent email that in thinking it over the posting of the note on my Flickr site was probably not a bad thing. In fact, it might turn out to be a good thing. She reasoned that the Faile crew might see the note and get in touch with me or her.

It was at that point that she enlisted my help as her personal cupid and asked me what she should do next. I advised her to play it cool and wait and see if any of them got in touch with her or with me. None of them did. The situation now looked bleak. Time was passing and nothing was happening for Ida.

After waiting for what must have seemed an eternity for her, Ida had a bit of luck. It turned out that the Faile crew were going to have big gallery show in England and Ida had read about it. Now she would have a chance to meet them at the opening, but once again her hopes were dashed. It turned out that because of some confusion Ida did not get to the opening, but she did manage to get to the show and inquired about buying one of their works. So she made arrangements to come to New York to pick out the piece she wanted. That is the reason we met in New York in April of 2007.

Prior to her visit to their studio and while still in England Ida told me all about her plans and asked how she should handle herself at the forthcoming meeting. I told her to act cool and act like an art buyer. This is the part of the story when her earlier visit to Zanzibar becomes important. When Ida was about 20 she had gone to Zanzibar for a vacation and spent most of her time smoking pot and sunbathing on the beach. She was having a wonderful time when it occurred to her that she ought to do some sightseeing. It would just not do to go home and have to tell people that she had done nothing but loll around on the beach smoking pot. So she booked passage on a boat to take her to a small island which was a part of Zanzibar but where few outsiders ever go because there was not much to see there. At least she could say that she went somewhere and did something. When she arrived at the port, or when she was on the boat , she met a witchdoctor from Oman who was on a buying trip to the small island. There, he said, he could get magic potions and other things to take back with him. So they struck up a friendship and Ida asked if she could come along with him on his buying trip to the interior. Now that was something all her friends back home would be interested in. After all, who gets to travel through the jungle with a witchdoctor from Oman on a buying trip? The witchdoctor agreed to take her along and they both set out into the jungle on foot for their meeting. When they finally arrived at the designated spot they found themselves in a mud hut filled with magical potions and a variety of other things. The witchdoctor from Oman transacted his business and then the local witchdoctor asked Ida if she would like some protection for her subsequent voyage home. It was at that moment that she thought that she might be in big trouble. She thought that she might very well be raped or killed or God knows what and nobody would ever know a thing. What was she going to do? After all, there she was, all alone, in the middle of the jungle with two male witchdoctors.

Luckily she made the right decision and said that of course she wanted some protection. The ritual involved some bloodletting and then the local witchdoctor told her that nothing bad would happen to her for about six months. The spell he had cast using her blood was that powerful. Apparently he had taken a shine to Ida and as a parting gift he gave her a very small stick which he said would make any man fall in love with her if she put it in her mouth when she met and talked with him.

After she had fallen in love with the Faile crew, or at least one of them, she dug out that old stick and sent me an urgent email from London. She wanted to know if she should use it when she picked out her work of art in New York or was she just being silly? By that time she had found out that one of the men in the group was single. She was also afraid that she might become so nervous that she would possibly choke on the small stick if she put it into her mouth. I told her that that was unlikely and that she should use it. I further remarked that she had nothing to lose and everything gain if it worked. I also told her that if she was nervous she just had to be very careful and tuck the stick between her gum and her cheek so she could still talk, but in a place where she would not choke on it by mistake.

To make a long story short she met with the group and was so nervous that she forgot to put the magic stick she got from the witchdoctor from Zanzibar into her mouth. Hence the spell could not work. But Ida did manage to make her purchase and even met the unmarried member of the group. Things were looking up.

She called me from their studio and we agreed to meet at 55 Prince Street where she could calm her nerves and meet my family. After meeting Gwen and the kids she said she needed some coffee so we went to a nearby cafe where we could talk. She wanted to tell me all the details of her meeting and ask what she should do next. She was leaving for England the next say so if there was going to be any romance it was going to have to commence with an exchange of emails.

It was then that I sprang into action. As her personal cupid I felt I had an obligation to encourage her romance. That is what cupids are supposed to do. I told her that she had missed the boat as far as using her magic stick was concerned but I had something else which might do the trick. I told her that about a year before I had found a voodoo doll outside our loft and had taken it in because I felt that it might come in handy someday. This was the day. I said that it was a fertility doll and that it could obviously stimulate a romance. The doll was handmade of cloth and twigs and represented a mother carrying a small baby doll. Between the body of the baby and the mother there was a small pouch into which fingernail clippings, hair, dried blood and other types of dried bodily fluids could be placed as well as well as any part of an object the man to be bewitched had touched. Ida was dubious. She said how did I know that it was a real voodoo doll? I said that I had made a study of wax figures, mannequins and dolls and had seen a similar figurein one of my reference books. The one illustrated in the book was almost identical to the one I found and it was from Haiti. I urged her to take the doll back to England with her. She agreed but then told me that she did not have any fingernail clippings, hair or dried blood from the man handy, much less any dried bodily fluids. It was not that kind of meeting she said. This presented a problem.

I knew enough about ritual magic to understand that certain objects needed to be activated before they could be made to work and that she needed something from the man himself. The voodoo doll and the object from the man needed to be activated. I told her that for a start she had to rub the voodoo doll up against the work of art she had just acquired and that would transfer the the necessary energy from him to the doll. Then the doll itself needed to be activated. Ida saw the logic of it. Ida would have to find a voodoo priestess in London to activate the doll. My only real concern was that even if the doll was activated it had to cast a spell across the Atlantic ocean. That is quite a distance for any spell to work.

Ida wrote to me from England that she was looking for a voodoo priestess. She also said that her potential lover had sent her an email saying how much he had enjoyed her visit. That was a very good sign. I was confident that armed with her magic stick and her soon to be activated voodoo doll Ida would prevail . Alas, although the handwriting was on the wall the romance fizzled.

Ida has been unable to further her long distance and one sided romance. The love affair, such as it was, had fallen flat and I had proved to be an impotent cupid. Most surprisingly the voodoo doll, although clearly magical, did not have any effect , probably because it had not been correctly activated. Looking back on all of these events with the advantage of hindsight, I see now that the beginning of the end probably occurred when Ida forgot to put the magic stick into her mouth when she met the member of the Faile crew. That was her big chance and she blew it. Proximity is everything in matters of love. Ida must now begin her quest for true love again.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Treasures And Trash on Prince and Spring Streets

When I first had the idea to write some neighborhood stories I also began photographing what I saw on the streets before it was all swept away by gentrification. The first thing I saw was all the graffiti, street art and old storefront signs which were starting to disappear. I also saw a lot of old refuse, junk and trash on the streets which would be rapidly collected as the neighborhood filled up with tourists with money to spend. Some of it was quite beautiful. I was reminded of the paper collages of Kurt Schwitters and the use of newspapers, oilcloth and real rope in some of the paintings og Picasso. And of course there was the aesthetic bombshell of the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp which changed everything. These were found objects of no aesthetic merit which gained prestige as soon as they were shown in an art context. Later there were the real objects affixed to the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. Even torn movie posters were taken down , framed and became works of art by virtue of being shown in art galleries by Mimmo Rotella. In the 20th century trash, rubbish, junk and found objects were slowly making their way up the aesthetic ladder and finally found themselves in the museums and auction galleries with some very eyebrow raising price tags on them if they bore the correct signatures. More and more modern artists climbed on the bandwagon and were finding their new materials in garbage dumps, on the streets or in junk shops. At one point junk sculpture became all the rage.

On a more mundane level, before the old Salvation Army Store on Spring Street between Lafayette and Crosby closed and a boutique opened, you could find good used leather coats and jackets there for $25.00 and up. The first Ralph Lauren store which was on Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston Streets had similar old black jackets with the Lauren label in them going for about $900.00 and up. What they are selling for now at the new Double Ralph Lauren store on the corner of Prince and Mott Street is anybody's guess.

Treasures or trash? You be the judge. What are material objects really worth? Do they have any objective value? Apparently not when they are linked to the art world or the fashion industry. Meanwhile I had been picking up pieces of paper trash that had been left to rot on the street and had been photographing them. After I had taken the picture I threw the originals away. By March of 2008 I realized that I had been making a terrible mistake. Here is how it happened.

I was pricing some photos for a group show at the Artbreak Gallery in Williamsburg and told the Director that my work usually sold for anywhere between $400.00 and $8,000.00 depending on the size, the edition and where it was being sold. I told the Director that he could sell the two small framed pieces for $200.00 each considering that it was a new gallery. The Director replied that he did not want anyone to to think that he was selling trash and promptly put a price of $1,000.00 on each of the two pieces.

If one small photograph, which was only a copy of an original object in the real world, was valued at $1000.00 , what, for example, would a real piece of trash be worth? After all, the latter was not only a unique original but it had the added virtue of not being a reproduction, a replica, a copy or a duplicate. It was not a photograph but the thing in itself. It was the real McCoy. From that point on I decided to keep the trash I had been photographing and put them in frames and price them at $10,000.00 each. I had found discarded and unrecognized treasures right here on Prince Street.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Harry the hat wanted to have his picture taken

Harry the Hat, whose real name is Frank Aqilino and whose nickname is butch , is one of the oldtimers in the neighborhood. He's about 60 or so now. He's an actor who does bit parts in many of the gangster movies made in the last thirty or so years. He often appears on " Law and Order" as well. Once you see him you will never forget his face. It's a face that was made for type casting. In any event Frank wanted some new pictures for his portfolio. In early May of 2006 he asked me to do the job, not because I'm a photographer, but because I'm local. Around here that is what counts. So we set up a time, met and in a few moments I had a whole batch of new pictures for him. No problem. Butch is a seasoned actor and he knows how to pose for the still camera. I liked the one where he sports his trademark hat. Lots of hip people try to imitate the look, but there is only one Harry the Hat. No matter what I did, or for that matter no matter what Butch did, the pictures would still look like a series of mug shots. While I was shooting Frank launched into a tirade against John who had sold Buffa's Deli. The real season for his resentment was that he and everyone else in the neighborhood now has nowhere to go. Nor, he said could we even recognize a face on the streets during the weekends when it was filled with tourists. I still have all the pictures. The problem is I don't see Frankie around anymore.

A few weeks before we got together to take the pictures, Frankie, wearing one of his old time hats, stood on the corner of Mott and Prince Streets looking for a familiar face. He saw me and we talked. Then Frankie spied a building buzzer and he looked at each name in turn and then he turned to me and said, " I used to know everyone who lived in this building and now none of the names are familiar." The neighborhood was changing. What with all the old places closed there is nowhere for the locals to go anymore. Then Frankie turned and walked home down Mott Street towards Spring. I watched him go looking like a lost soul in the neighborhood in which he was born and had lived all of his life.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bum Poo Alley Becomes a Photographers Paradise

These days numerous fashion shoots are being done in the grungy alleyway called Jersey Street between Crosby and Lafayette Street about half a block down from Houston. It has been named " Bum Poo Alley" by Gwen Akin because the homeless use it as a public toilet. There are even two hand painted signs on the walls telling people not to piss and shit there. I took some shots of both of them and made them into photo grids. Now models and actors strut their stuff for the cameras right there while crews pick up what excrement they find before the working day begins for the actors and models. One pretty young female model even pranced around topless for the camera for a fashion shoot. Needless to say she had great looking boobs. Alleyways are always good for photo shoots of manly men. There an acter can look and snarl like Brando and get away with it. On a Saturday a few years ago I was asked to shoot some extra stills for a short independent film Fiore DeRosa and Steve Shaw made called " Distraction." They shot some of it in our loft because two of the main characters were photographers. My son Adam Lowell Ludwig and I did most of the still photography. The art director on the publicity shoot was very impressed with Jersey Street. He told me he was going to come back and use it for some other stuff he wanted to get down on film. Early on December day I even saw an episode of " Law and Order" being filmed there, and NYU film students are in love with it as well. Bum Poo Alley is getting famous.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Buffa's Was A Prince Street Institution

Buffa's Deli was another Prince Street institution but it closed during the summer of 2006. It had been around since 1928 serving early breakfasts and then lunch for the locals and working class people who came downtown to work. John, Toni, Adele, Seraphin, Anna and Zack were institution around here. Adele, who was born on Mott Street and worked at Buffa's for 55 years had already retired after a lifetime of insulting customers. In 2007 she turned 80. When she was there it used to be a hang-out for film directors who considered it good luck to give Adele and the rest of the gang signed posters of their latest films. It was still a hang-out for film directors until it closed and you used to be able to see all of their signed movie posters there. John Waters was crazy about Adele and Toni and so was Peter Koper. On one of his movie posters Waters wrote, " Adele , don't kill any of your snotty customers." Two sandwiches were named after Water's and Koper's films. You used to be able to see Adele, Tillie, Seraphin and Anna having breakfast or lunch at Buffa's if you happened to arrive at the right time.

About twenty five years ago Adele announced to everyone who would listen that I was a cheap bastard who would not buy his bride- to- be an engagement ring. She claimed she had to force me not only to buy Gwen, my wife to be, an engagement ring but to get married as well. She told everyone almost everyday that if it were not for her we would still not be married. In fact I had to show her both the engagement and the wedding ring for her approval. I would not have been surprised if she had pulled a jeweler's loupe out of her pocket to give each ring the once over. The engagement ring had a big pearl on it and she asked me if it was real! She told the story so many times everyone was sick of it.

Tillie, who was born on Elizabeth Street, is a Buffa and the mother of John who used to run the restaurant and is now in her nineties. Her memory goes back a long way. Her grandfather owned a large store on Elizabeth Street. That must have been in the late 19th or early 20th century. In any event, she told me that the infamous Black Hand Society, the precursor of the Mafia, kidnapped his daughter who may have been Tillie's mother or aunt, and demanded $5,000 dollars ransom for her release. ( At that time the Black Hand Society was located on Prince Street between the Bowery and Elizabeth Street) Tillie's grandfather managed to scrape together the money and the family got the daughter back. After that part of the Buffa family moved upstate to get out of the city which they considered unsafe.

Toni Rosa, who had been around for about 25 years. guarded my seedless raspberry jelly which I used to leave there for my morning English muffin. Once Toni caught a customer helping himself to my special stash and Toni grabbed it away from him and said that if Allan ever saw such a terrible thing he would have to have a third triple by-pass. I told the cops who had breakfast there about the attempted theft but they said that they were after bigger crimes. In insisted that a crime was a crime and that it did not matter if it was big or small. They got a laugh out of the whole episode , but they did not try to capture the would be jelly thief in spite of the fact that Toni knew who he was.

During January of 2006 Frankie Corso, a regular customer, and I made Toni absolutely crazy. Frankie put a pair of ugly false teeth in his mouth and slumped over in his chair as if he had passed out or was dead. I got up from our table and told Toni that Frankie looked dead. Toni came rushing in yelling that Frankie was dead. Toni thought that the worst had taken place and was a nervous wreck for the rest of the day. She even had a slight accident when she saw Frankie slumped over. She tried to wake him but he did not budge. At that moment she peed in her pants. By March she was telling the story with pride to anybody who would listen.

Buffa's was one of the last places in the city where you could get an authentic egg cream, an old New York drink, and only Toni and a few others remembered how to make them the right way. First of all you had to use Fox's -U- Bet Chocolate Syrup. The rest is a secret formula. Our kids, Alison and Allan Jr. ate there every morning and Toni would smack them if they got out of line. Every morning they would squabble over who would get to choose the program on the TV set. The regulars were legion and nobody went there for the food. My older son Adam claimed that their ham and eggs gave him the poops every morning. Some of the regulars were Frankie Corso, Chris, Max, Harry the Hat ( Frank Andollino ) , Peter and Geena Koper, The Heisler family consisting of Greg, Prudence, Lucie and Sadie Rose, Susan Zeig and Emma, Vinny Vella, Anita Jorgenson, Donald Blair, Jimmy Wright and the crowd from the Bowery Mission. Chris had made some framed photos of a trip he had made to Greece and had given one of them to me. Two others hung at Buffa's. In April of 2006 Chris took his two framed pictures back home. He did not want them thrown out when the renovations began.

An infrequent addition to the patron who frequented Buffa's was Brian Moran who was an avid collector of old John McCormack recordings. He had just about all of them and made copies of them for his own pleasure. We got to talking one day and I told him I was a big fan of John McCormack. He said I was the first person he had met in a long time who even knew his name. Then he proceeded to tell me all about the exquisite tone he could produce and his precise pronunciation. In addition he said that the singer put his whole heart into every song he sang. He is still known to those who cherish his name as the greatest Irish tenor of all time. ( I knew about him because my other had a huge collection of his songs . ) Brian even told me that McCormack was a good friend of James Joyce. The he promised to make two cd-s for me and he was as good as his word. I still have them and play them from time to time.

A few years ago a young waitress from the Czech Republic who worked at Buffa's got the nickma,e of Sunshine because she never smiled. Her real name was Veronica. After a while at Buffa's she started to smile and never stopped.

Any time of the day at Buffa's was a scene. John ran the place but he was in his sixties and was getting tired. There were always lots of problems including a leak from upstairs which had been coming down in drips and drabs and sometimes torrents for about three years. The false ceiling once fell down and the patrons had to move to another table to stay dry. It was eventually fixed but nobody knew for how long. Their old waffle iron broke more than ten years ago and they solved the problem by never serving waffles again, but who cared? When the lights in the ceiling burned out they might stay that way for weeks or months. I loved the place even though my wife and I got kicked out in November of 2005, after more than 20 years, for lingering too long at our table. I stayed away for some weeks. Later John said that he was sorry and we embraced in public and made up.It was very emotional. I was worried that I would not be invited to their yearly Thanksgiving Day Feast, but everything was worked out just in time. The place was one of the last connections to Little Italy as it used to be.

On February 10, 2006, Gwen and I heard the bad news. John, who had only four years left on his lease, sold the majority interest in the place to several investors over the Christmas holiday season. What had lasted since 1928 would no longer belong to the Buffa family and would be transformed into a 24/7 upscale restaurant and bar. While I was away on vacation in July I heard from Jimmy Wright that the place had closed. He told me I was lucky not to have been there on that last day. Toni was in tears knowing that whatever happened , the old Buffa's wax gone forever.

Prior to the closing the new owners told the waitresses that they would have to " audition" for jobs. Nobody quite knew what that meant. When everyone was notified of the sale I saw Toni and Chris holding hands and trembling. They knew that this was the end. When I told Geena Koper the news she said that it was bound to happen , the rents were just too high for a place like Buffa's to survive. As of the end of February Toni was resigned to probably not being at Buffa's when it reopened under a new name. If that happened none of the cops, firemen or construction workers would be back either. They came because Toni was there. Frankie Corso said he already was looking for a new joint in which to have breakfast and lunch.

More important than the economics of gentrification is how the process itself rips a settled neighborhood apart. On Valentine's Day of 2006 all the local ladies of a certain age and several others gathered at Buffa's to have their own celebration. They had a special small red cake with icing made for them. Toni, Sunshine, Adele and Tillie got slices and I got one as well. Everyone had a story from the old days including adele who said she had a bureau filled with wedding rings from all her old husbands. Butch got a piece of cake as well. He had just purchased a new black motorcycle jacket and looked good in it. There was no room for Vinny Vella who had to sit in another room in the restaurant. The next day many of the same people were there at the same time, about 3:00 P.M. , sitting with the retired Monsignor from the Church.. Vinny Vella found out about the sale of Buffa's on March 7th and was visibly shocked. He wondered where he would go to sit down and have a quiet cup of coffee and meet friends. Prior to that time Vinny had negotiated a documentary film of his life sitting right there at Buffa's. In early April of 2006 I started taking a few pictures of most of the staff and regulars. On June 21st , 2006 I started distributing the pictures I had taken to everyone.

On June 28th, 2006 I heard that Tillie, Seraphin, Adele and Anna had made plane to abandon their table at Buffa's for good. Their rituals involved lunches at Buffa's , the hairdresser, shopping at the supermarket , the Church, bingo, and trips to Atlantic City every now and then. All the neighborhood ladies would charter a bus which would pick them up in the morning on the corner of Mott and Prince Street and the bring them back home at the end of the day. Over the late summer some of the older ladies including Tillie, Anna, Adele and Seraphin would being out folding chairs and sit in front of the now closed Buffa's. It was not the same but it was better than nothing. When the cold weather came they could not even do that.

At first glance one would not think that a local restaurant would mean so much, but like the old social clubs which dotted the neighborhood and are now gone, it was a gathering place for an important part of the community. This is the kind of thing that ruins an old neighborhood but never gets written about because there is nothing sensational to report. It is not new as we have come to understand it. It is not even local news, but it is the fabric of neighborhood life being mindlessly torn apart. It is the story of displacement through gentrification.

After the end of Buffa's some of the old staff who worked there came back on Monday the 31st of July , 2006 to clean up. John, Tillie, Sunshine, Zack and Toni were there to get rid of a lot of stuff before the demolition began. Toni said that during the construction period she and sunshine were going to go to charm school to learn good manners. They wanted to be ready when the place reopened. They sensed that if they could get jobs there the new customers would not want to be yelled at. Nor would they want Toni to give them classic Sicilian curses behind their backs complete with rude hand gestures and body language. Toni sensed that the place would be polite and genteel. She was right. It would be like all the other restaurants in town. John had not yet gotten the picture. He would scream and curse at the staff all day long. The new upscale crowd would not like that. He would have to tone it way down if he wanted to hang around.

There was a moment of joy on November 17th 2007. Quite by accident I met Toni and her new husband of two months and she announced that she was pregnant. They were on their way upstate to a family event and leaving from the front of Buffa's. Toni was still telling the story of the translucent figure of Christ which had turned into a giant voodoo doll and was hung outside Buffa's on a post at the corner of Prince and Elizabeth Streets. She told her shocked new husband that she had been offered a gun to shoot it down by the cops but she said no. She aslo told the story of the purloined raspberry jelly and how she got it back. She did not fail to add the detail that the jelly was very expensive because old ladies with tweezers at the factory had to pick the seeds out one by one before it could be put into jars to be sold. Then she said that Buffa's had been her whole life and that she had loved every moment of it.

As parting gifts before the place closed I gave sunshine and Toni key chains with little pink plastic pigs hanging from them. When you squeezed the pigs hard imitation shit came
out their butts.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Translucent Figure of Jesus Appeared on Prince Street

A translucent figure of Jesus with his arms outstretched and marked by simulated nails through his palms and feet and a wound on his side appeared on Prince Street in lower Manhattan in May of 2006. The figure was held to a flagpole by a thin wire attached to it's back. Few people even looked up and saw it, although it was over three feet tall. But Toni Rosa at Buffa's Deli instantly recognized it and alerted all the customers that something strange was going on. Jimmy Wright, a regular at Buffa's, said he saw the figure the night before and the place where the nails and the wound were was glowing red. Later we found out that the figure was made out of transparent tape with a hollow center by the Washington D.C. artist Mark Jenkins. The lights were tiny and powered by small flat batteries taped to the figure.

Toni Rosa came to the conclusion that it was an anti Catholic image and it began to spook her the more she thought about it. Why was it there in so secular a context? Why was it there at all? Toni was really getting upset. Everyone in the restaurant began to get upset. A group of cops were having breakfast at the time and Toni knew all of them. One of them joked that if she did not like the figure, which everyone could see from the window's at Buffa's, she could blast away at it with his gun from just outside the restaurant. The officer took out his gun and laid it on the table . Toni was really tempted and reached for it and then thought she had better not. She said that she was a lousy shot and would probably kill an innocent passer by if she tried to hit it. Toni then asked me if I could somehow get it down because it was spooking her and everyone else. Almost nobody at Buffa's wanted to look at it but everyone was talking about it.

I asked around later that morning or early in the afternoon and I persuaded some of the workmen who were digging out our basement to get a tall ladder and get the figure for me. They brought one of their ladders out and in a few seconds I held the offending figure in my arms. I then brought it over to Buffa's to show it to Toni , John, Tillie, Zack and a few others. It looked even more uncanny when it was indoors because it began to light up. That really did it. Toni called it unholy and spooky and she began to punch at it with her fists. John, the owner, said that he could not look at such a terrible thing and I should get it out of his restaurant as soon as possible. They all agreed that it should be cut apart and Toni ran into the kitchen to get a knife. I ran out of the restaurant with the figure. Once outside it stopped glowing.

I asked Rhett Butler , the owner of a wholesale hardware store on the first floor of our building, if I could store the figure in his basement for safe keeping . He said yes and the workmen took it. The crew then lowered the figure into the basement through two open steel vault door.To me it looked like the descent from the Cross as the figure was lowered . Then the steel doors clamped shut. I swore at that moment that if the doors somehow swung open by themselves and the figure rose up to Heaven I would become a Catholic.

That was not the end of the story. On June 15th, 2006, Jimmy Wright, an artist who lived on the Bowery , decided that he wanted to figure. I told him that it was presently in the basement across the street but that I would see if I could get it for him. I asked Rhett about it and a little later he found it in a corner of the basement and gave it to me. By that time it had been stripped of it's small red lights which had made it glow in the dark. Rhett said that he was glad to get rid of it because his workers did not like it and were scared of it. They too found it spooky and decidedly uncanny. Of course by that time they had secularized or neutralized the figure by having removed the red lights and the batteries, but we all knew the truth. It was still eerie and it was still giving off a strange aura. I say this because it had an unsettling effect on everyone who saw it.

I stored the figure in our loft on the second floor and the next morning I brought it over to Buffa's to give it to Jimmy. When I walked through the door with it it caused another commotion. John did not want it in his Restaurant and said I should put it in the basement until Jimmy arrived. Then he changed his mind and called the large figure an evil voodoo doll. He wanted it off his property and he would not even look at it. He claimed it had the evil eye, but in reality it had no eyes at all. John was getting very, very upset. Then Toni started to punch the figure again and ran into the kitchen a second time to get a knife. She agreed with John that it was an evil voodoo doll and had to be cut into little pieces. When Zack began to punch at it I ran out of the restaurant with the figure of Jesus in my arms. Almost everyone in the restaurant agreed that it was an evil voodoo doll and that it had a bad hex on it. I brought it back to my loft. By the time Jimmy arrived for lunch he got the whole story and he told me that the place was in an uproar. It was. So I went from Buffa's back to the loft to get the offending figure to give to Jimmy. By that time I was glad to get rid of it. As soon as I had walked back into Buffa's with it and had given it to Jimmy Toni and John said they wanted Jimmy out of the restaurant at once. After he and the large doll were gone almost everyone agreed that the figure would bring him bad luck and he was crazy to even want it. Later Jimmy told me that he thought that some very primitive forces had been unleashed by the doll and he was glad to have gotten it home in one piece. To him it was a work of art. Frankie Corso, another regular who was there and saw everything , said that the whole thing was stupid and shook his head in disbelief.

For me, to actually see the effect that a religious figure had on part of the neighborhood was to experience first hand a regression from reason to an atavism which was startling. In no more than a few moments the outer core of what we call civilization was burst open and everything that had been repressed returned with uncanny power. Only Freud would have known what to make of it all.

It turned out that Mark Jenkins in collaboration with the Graffiti Research Lab had placed another similar figure on a lamp post near Lafayette and Kenmare Streets a few blocks away. Jimmy had been in touch with the artist through the internet and he found the whole thing astonishing. By August of 2006 the figure on Lafayette and Kenmare was also gone.

I like to think that the figure was put up on Prince Street by the artist as a silent rebuke to the row upon row of boutiques which line the street and the huge advertising signs which trumpet our materialistic society to one and all. I like to think that it was a rebuke to all those tourists who now mindlessly swarm though our neighborhood like hungry locusts. I like to think that the figure was saying that there is more to life than the gathering of material possessions. I know, of course, that the artist and many others may have different ideas about why the figure was placed there, but this is what I choose to believe.

None of the old time residents want to see our neighborhood become another outdoor shopping mall like SoHo. And make no mistake, our neighborhood is fast becoming nothing but a shopping mall. I have seen shoppers come to town on chartered buses which park on Lafayette Street just below Spring . They come from places as far away as Connecticut, Pennsylvania and even Delaware and Maryland to shop here. And they come here from Europe as well. One wonders if shopping malls , theme parts, gambling casinos, sports stadiums and hyped media are all that our culture can offer. If so, the utter vacuity of it all is a sad commentary on the promise which was once called The American dream.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Fascinating Story Of Billy's Antique And Prop Shop

Located on the Bowery where that street meets Houston, Billy's is a relic of the old days which are disappearing fast. Prior to Billy taking over the establishment it was run by someone else in a series of huge circus-like tents which housed merchandise which spilled over onto the street during business hours. Now Billy is the owner and his place is saved only by the fact that it is so long and thin that not even the most imaginative developer can think of how to make a profit from it. Billy's full name is William Leroy.

Billy often rides a Harley and has a pigtail and is more like a carnival barker than the proprietor of a store. Before Billy took over the goods were always interesting and the range os used items ranged from old file cabinets and sinks to everything in between. Since Billy took over it has become more like a sideshow complete with freaky objects that only photographers and other collectors of the odd and arcane could love. For example, a few years ago he had a very realistic death mask made of plaster and it was correct to the last detail including the texture of the skin and a mustache and a beard. It was even painted a flesh color. We all knew it was a death mask because it said so in French on an old label on the bottom dating from the l930's. It told the incredible story of a criminal who was guillotined. That's right, his head was chopped off by the same kind of device made famous in France during their Revolution. I purchased the item and photographed it . Unfortunately I lost the negatives and now have only a small set of 4X6 inch prints. I did, however, scan one of the prints and now the head lives again in digital form.I gave the head itself to Laura Lindgren who adores it.

Another interesting item is a human ass made out of some kind of plastic material and housed in a large black box. When the box is opened there was the ass with it's cheeks spread. In the center was a flexible asshole. The instructions said that before you inserted your finger ( or any other part of your anatomy) deep into the interior it had to be properly lubricated. It was originally a medical device made for budding proctologists , but it had obviously been used for other purposes. Like any sex toy or medical device it had to be kept clean. Therefore sanitary instructions came with it. If you like to butt fuck or poke your fingers into imitation assholes this item is for you. I tried to think of a way to make an interesting photograph of it, but finally gave up. Billy may still have it. It is probably a hard item to sell because you can buy much more alluring and realistic asses at any sex store in the city.

The question is where does Billy get such bizarre items? This was answered for me one day when Billy invited me next door to the bar where the locals hang out. There they were screening a documentary which was being made of Billy and his place. In it I saw various characters approaching Billy with large and small bags of stuff which they showed Billy in the hope that he would be tempted to buy. Out came skulls, skeletons, dead babies in jars, death masks, wax heads and figures, sculptures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and lots of stuffed animals and fishes. Billy always asked where the various items came from and a lot of them were fished out of dumpsters. Dumpster diving is a career for many of these people. In the film I thought a caught a glimpse of The Oracle Of The Bowery, a man I had spoken with many times, but it was hard to tell because the bar was flooded with light and the projected images were pale and indistinct.

Because Billy thinks he remembers me from the old days, we have become buddies and he even allowed me and another photographer to take some stills in his place. That both of us were were able to secure some good shots of the dead baby in a bottle, a staple not only at old time medical museums but sideshows as well, is extraordinary. Now that we are all politically correct it is not only hard to get one of these strange items but almost impossible to get permission to photograph such a thing. Talk about cultural taboos.

Billy's business is thriving. It is one of the last places reeking with the authentic aura of the old Bowery. The new Bowery is being gentrified at an alarming rate and you can even find a cafe with outdoor awnings and people dining and drinking in the nice weather. The limo crowd has arrived and the people who grace page six cannot be far behind.

One of the most poignant things to be found at Billy's in June of 2007 was a life sized painting on flat wood which had been cut out in the form of Toni Rosa who was a beloved waitress at Buffa's for 25 years before it closed. There was her colorful image smiling and carrying a tray filled with delicious looking food. I photographed the icon and took lots of close-ups. I assumed that Billy had acquired it from the new owners of the place. I was shocked to find out that it had been fished out of a dumpster.

The idea that a large image of Toni at Buffa's had been consigned to a dumpster was particularly disturbing to me. I associate all dumpsters with the dreaded Russ Martin Dumpster into which everything in the world of coming to be and passing away must one day be consigned. The Dreaded Russ Martin Dumpster has many faces. One of them is the black hole in the universe which some scientists tell us every bit of matter may one day be sucked leaving nothing at all. I first heard about the Dreaded Russ Martin Dumpster from Russ Martin himself. Russ is a photographer of some note. One day he asked me why I bothered to make so many photographs. I told him that is what I liked to do. He said that after I had died all those mounted prints would be a source of worry and expense for my children who would keep them in storage for a while. Then, when they too passed away or got tired of paying the storage bills, they would be consigned to a dumpster. After that they would be burnt or become nothing more than landfill. Russ had a point. Every material object in the universe must finally come to grips with the Dreaded Russ Martin Dumpster. My photographs are still safe, but the colorful image of Toni Rosa of Buffa's was not so lucky at first. Like any form of garbage it was simply heaved up and into a dumpster and were it not for an alert dumpster diver it would have been landfill by this time. Now it has a second life at Billy's. Billy bought it and is keeping it safe and sound until he can find a buyer for it. During the winter of 2008 I went over to Billy's and found that he had indeed sold it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

It's Not Possible To Gentrify Katz's Deli

On Houston and Ludlow Streets there is Katz's Deli which serves some of the best hot pastrami sandwiches in town. It has been there for more than a century ( it opened in 1888) and is unlikely to change. To have a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz's is to know that you are in New York City. There are many stories about Katz's. Here is one of them. One morning in early May 2006 my son Adam had chest pains and was taken to the emergency room where they said he probably had three blocked arteries. When I arrived at the emergency room he said that the only thing he wanted was a hot pastrami sandwich from Katz's. I told him I would bring him one the next day. The following morning I stopped off at Katz's on the way to the hospital , approached the sandwich counter and ordered a lean hot pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard. I told the deli man that it was for my son who was in the hospital with three blocked arteries and that was why I wanted a lean sandwich. The counter man said, "Well, if he doesn't have blocked arteries now, he will after he eats this sandwich. I'm putting extra meat on it." I left him a big tip.

Adam's face was the picture of Joy as he downed the sandwich that morning in the Intensive Care Unit. The day after Adam consumed his hot pastrami sandwich I visited him again at the New York Presbyterian Hospital where he had been transferred. There, at 11 A.M., I found him covered with nirto patches, intertwined with IV's, heart monitor cords and his girlfriend. They were in his hospital bed making out. He even had the nerve to ask the nurse for more nitro pills because he had chest pains. I suppose there is nothing like a Katz's hot
pastrami sandwich to make you think of sex, even if you were are flat on your back in an Intensive Care Unit. The story had a happy ending. Adam had two stents put in and was released from the hospital on May 13th. Hot pastrami sandwiches were one of the top items on the hospital's list of forbidden foods. I fact Abe Lebewohl, the ex owner of the fabulous Second Avenue Deli , at a conference of food writers in the mid-1990's said, , when it was his turn to apeak, " What am I gonna tell you?" He said, " My food will kill you." Although he was not speaking about hot pastrami sandwiches in particular you do not have to be Albert Einstein to figure out that hot pastrami was high on the list of deadly foods. After the speech making was over everyone in the crowded room rushed over to the buffet and, you guessed it, the meat platters were demolished. ( Alex Witchel, " A Counter History", The New York Times Magazine Section , October 21, 2007.p. 64ff)

You can even think about sex while you are at Katz's. After all, Meg Ryan's inspired fake orgasm scene was filmed there. There is a sign to remind you of it. On the other hand Katz's hot pastrami sandwiches have been known to bring out the spiritual, rather than the carnal side of some people. For example , a few years ago while eating a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz's , the photographer Gary Nickard said that the very existence of such a tasty sandwich was proof that not only did God exist but that He loved us. This is an extremely elevated idea to have come from oral contact with a lowly hot pastrami sandwich. God's love hiding in a hot pastrami sandwich is such a radical idea that I don' t think that our most distinguished theologians are prepared to deal with it.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Neighborhood Stories, How They Came About

It all began a few years ago when Mitzi Pratt had her annual bookmaking sale at her sister's loft which is next to ours on Prince Street between Mulberry and Lafayette Streets. In the course of the party I had reason to look through the variety of bound volumes and I found a photo album which struck my fancy. It was an extraordinary work whose cover was made up of small sheets of pressed lead from old bottles of wine. It seemed to capture the whole spirit of downtown as it used to be. It looked like any one of a number of metal doors from lofts and elevators left over from the time when some of the buildings in Little Italy were small factories.

It was then that I had a thought. I would buy the book and fill it with small 4" X 6" photos taken in the streets. After making the purchase I went out the next morning to have a look around. What I saw was our old neighborhood in the process of being gentrified. Everything that was old was out of style and everything that was shiny and new was in. The new shops had to attract the tourists and the rehabbed buildings had to gleam in order to attract the rich new owners and tenants.

After I had completed filling up the book I gave it to Mitzi as a gift. Then I had another thought. Little Italy was changing rapidly and soon it would become completely gentrified. All the old timers would be slowly displaced and there would be nobody to tell their stories. I decided to write down some of the stories I knew.

In December of 2007 Mitzi has her last book party. Noni, Mitzi's sister, was in the process of selling her loft and moving to Queens. In February of 2008 Noni actually moved out. That's another change which is symbolic of what is happening to our neighborhood. Many of the activities which we associated with culture rather than commerce are disappearing. By culture I do not mean the public pushing into museums and chattering ignorantly about the latest thing being promoted by professional curators and museum directors. By culture I mean the way in which people live together as a society or in a small community and interact over a long period of time. It is this culture which is under attack by the process of rapid gentrification. It is this culture which is in danger of disappearing entirely.

The photo which illustrates this story was taken just a few steps from here and is of a manhole cover which dates back to 1866. Water used to come into the neighborhood all the way from Croton, New York. The manhole cover is one of the last visible remnants of that system of pipes and aqueducts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How To Learn A Lesson

I walked into the Shark Bar at the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets last week and bought a bottle of Scotch and sat down at a small table with my back to the door to think about how I would get out of the relationship I had been forced into by Kam the Alien. I was enjoying my fourth or fifth drink and feeling no pain when I saw a large figure appear in front of me. The next thing I knew I saw a fist coming at the right side of my head. Wham. I got hit hard and knocked off my chair into a table full of bottles. Things few in all directions including me.

I looked up from the floor and there was this big blonde standing over me. She must have been well over six feet tall and was dressed in a grungy leather jacket, pants and cowboy boots.

I rubbed my eyes and said, " Who are you?", but I had a good idea who it was. Then the blonde kicked me in the side and said, "Get up you lousy asshole". By that time the few patrons in thr bar were looking at us.

She said, " That's for trying to kill me." Then she kicked me again and said, " That's for trying to kill me twice". I was drunk and reeling when she pulled me to my feet and said, "Let's get the Hell out of here". So she pushed me out the door. Too bad I did not have my small .32 automatic with me or I would have shot her for the third time. You guessed it, it was Kam the Alien in disguise. She had a car parked outside and she said, " Drive" .

"Ok", I said , " so now talk." She said we were going on a trip to the Southwest to hold up a bunch of gas stations and shoot up a few small towns. I told her she could let me out right there.

The next thing I knew she had transported us and the car to the Southwest and had morphed me into a thirty year old man. We were in the middle nowhere in the desert driving at high speed. In the distance I saw a sign which read, " Last Chance Motel and Gas". I knew that meant that there would nothing up ahead for about 100 miles or so. Kam told me to pull into the station and register into the motel. What a place. It looked like the end of the world. In many ways it was a last chance. At least it looked like my last chance. Once we got into our room Kam looked less tense.

She had morphed into a figure who looked like Peggy Cummins , the star of the old move , " Gun Crazy", so I knew what was coming. She was going on a rampage and this was just the beginning.

She then told me that she had gone out of her way to be nice to me and had even fallen in love with me and all she got in return was dirty looks and to top it all off I had tried to kill her twice. She wanted to know what was wrong with me. I told her that nothing was wrong with me but that she could not expect an earthling to fall in love with an Alien. She wanted to know what was so unusual about that. I told her that for one thing I did not even know what she really looked like. For all I knew she could be a giant cockroach. How could I fall in love with a giant bug? I then asked her what kind of creature she was. She said, " Ok, I'll show you". The next thing I knew she had morphed into a glowing ball of energy. Then she morphed back into the Peggy Cummins figure.

Then she wanted to talk some more. She wanted to know if I could love her if she turned into a totally human person. I said that I did now know. She said she would do that for me. I told her not to do me any favors. That did it. She started to cry. The sprinkler system went on and I had a sobbing woman on my hands. " Look", I said, " you can stop that right now. I'm not impressed". She did not hear me and her whole body was shaking. She really was crying. I told her that I believed her and that I did sort of love her but she had to understand how hard it was for me.

I told her that we never could be a real couple because I was married and had five children. Furthermore I was not me at all but a duplicate or a Replicant she herself had made and she was nothing but the realization of an old film star drawn from my memory bank. Neither of us were real. Kam told me that she know that but I was not to worry about my family because she had created a second Replicant of me who was back in New York. Nobody, she said, would miss me. She insisted that although neither of us were real, we could fall in love .

She then said she had a big surprise for me. Before we went out and pulled out first job she said she was going to give me the best blow job I had ever had. She proceeded to do just that after she had pulled off my pants. That really made her extra hot and then we were off to rob a gas station about 100 miles down the road. Next time I'll tell you all about that blow job and the first robbery. It was all fantastic.