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.