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.