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East of Bowery blogspot | New York on December 5, 2008

We freaks would have one last hurrah, a benefit to save Adam Purple’s garden, an old man who rode around on a bicycle collecting trash, raggedy garb garnished by a purple bandanna. Few of us really knew who he was.

He lived in the last of a row of condemned houses on Forsyth, south of Houston and east of Bowery, a last surviving ex-hippie from the scene that begat ours, living with no heat or water, reputedly burning his own dried shit for fuel.

Five story walkups, turn of the century built in weeks for the cost of the mortar and bricks.

You always think of such tenements packed and teeming with lives in close quarters, abandoned during the burnings and the Alphabet city days of the 70’s, in these cavernous graffiti-scarred hulks rats ran free, and junkies folded over cracked and dry toilet bowls, their names shot in blood on the walls. A good place to get your head stove in.

As the other buildings went to seed, Sir Purple planted gardens. Everything from corn to flowers and hemp peaked over the chain links. The city always put fences around what they didn’t want to deal with.

The event was organized by many of the underground figures of the neighborhood, including Clayton Patterson who made strange hats and ran a storefront on Essex Street; Chris Flash, a younger more militant version of Purple who organized the first bicycle protests which later grew into the acts of defiance that still bedevil the NYC police force to this day; and John Shadow, a Tompkins Square Park activist who published an underground newspaper called The Shadow, a purported watchdog against all the forces that were conspiring to close down our condemned scene.

All of the would-be scene-makers, local dignitaries and organizers made speeches. One of them, I don’t remember which, spoke of the Honorable Guiliani, who at that time had just lost a close election to David Dinkins, “As a bullet aimed for our heads.” Who knew how accurate that was then?

The whole point of the event seemed rather dubious; the buildings were empty and being torn down for a city project to provide housing for low-income families. This is what actually happened. You can see them there today. They are three-story and most and really fit in with the neighborhood. However it was more romantic to identify with Mr. Purple. In our eyes we were all doomed, misunderstood bicyclists in a world trammeled over by cars, Moloch-machines and government-controlled projects, burning our waste in futile protest against the encroaching powers.

I could be wrong about all of this because to tell you the truth, we made fun of the local loudmouths. Downtown was our leader. Our sentiment was expressed in a mock performance by Peter Greene. A childhood friend of Downtown, Greene appeared at the time as Jim Carrey’s adversary in Mask. We all knew him from scoring around the neighborhood. And when he had a load on he liked to make up quotes he claimed were from unclaimed works “of the great bards of old.” Typical neighborhood shooting gallery bullshit really, the kind you heard coming off the barstools at great old haunts like the Parkside, Blue and Gold or The International, before they were over run by wannabes like me.

None of us knew the classics well enough to call him on it. Green was a big guy with a face you would never forget if you saw him. A very talented actor, he still works in Hollywood. You can see him taking a bullet in Training Day with Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington. Maybe Hawke knew him from the old neighborhood.

That night was rainy and cold. The weather wreaked havoc on the sound system and eventually a fire broke out.

Quoth Greene, “Alas all the toils of men are made futile by the march of time, victors over us all and all our glories end in loss and decrepitude.”

He walked off the stage and fell in a heap on the bare dirt. We didn’t know if it was an act or he was that zonked. A little of both, if you knew him like we did.

I am not a reliable narrator nor witness, because I had spent the whole day running around trying to score, picked up in a midnight sweep by the Pitt Street projects the night before, on a two day chill because I had frankly run out of ways to pay for my get high.

Valiantly I tried to explain this to the cops but they were not hearing it.

I spent the night in the lockup at the precinct underneath the Williamsburg Bridge worrying about the reading. At the last minute my arresting officer walked me out of the bullpen and led me out the front door in handcuffs.

“Now you gone and done it man. The river ain’t far from here.” A jailhouse buddy whispered at my back. Outside the policeman cut my plastic cuffs with a pocket knife and pushed me my first few steps down the street.

“What was that for?” I asked.

He looked at me for the fool I was, tense and fevered as a starved junkyard dog.

“G’wan, get out of here,” he hissed. “This is your lucky day.”

Stumbling, I fell to my knees and barfed in the dirt. When I looked back he was gone. I cursed and walked toward the dawn breaking purple over the brick tenements.

Let’s stop me frozen there and explain a few things. I was cold enough to freeze in the chilly dawn, kept warm only by my terrible desperation to get high. I had sneakers with no socks, an old pair of gray Levi corduroys, a ragged jean jacket and a blood-stained flannel shirt:

When I was at the City University, I had changed over the course of two semesters from a fresh-faced naif in button down Oxford cloths to a vaguely meanacing character in thrift store garb who haunted the campuses where I had worked, often in pre-dawn hours in curious untold pursuits sometimes accompanied by nefarious companions for whom I would have to vouch under increasingly troubling scenarios. I still had a valid ID but I could not longer pass for my own photo. I was a ravaged version of the fresh-faced literai I had been less than a year before.

With nothing better to do and exhausted, I went into Freeman Alley off of Rivington Street between Chrysie and Bowery and lay down behind a trash pile.

The rain awakened me. A stray dog was pulling at my sneaker.

The wind was chilly and as I got to my feet, yanking my foot from the jaws of the cur, I was struck with an obsessive compulsion. Slowly the idea grew until it loomed over me like some giant blob protoplasm, like the one Steve McQueen had to fight off in his first movie. Well, he lost too.

At Eldridge Street I walked straight up to a dealer standing out of the wet under a doorway awning. I pretended to have money in my hand and said,

“I’ll take five,” holding out the fingers of my other hand.

When he held out the dope, I gave his chest a shove, grabbed the bags, turned, leaped down the stoop onto the sidewalk, and ran past an old man reading a newspaper while walking, turning him on his heels like some madcap comedy, clutching the dope in my enclosed fist until I got to the train station at Essex and Delancey. I did the first bag behind a steel pillar on the platform. It had not tasted so good since the first one. By the time I made it to the reading I was lit up like train rails at sunset.

I caught Greene and Downtown’s performance, though I must admit, I have no idea what his poems were about. I was scheduled to read after my old friend, Ringo Heretic. He gave me an odd look as I mounted the stage. I must have looked pretty horrible, but in my mind I was some kind of Alphabet City reincarnation of Huck Finn. During my reading the police arrived & made an announcement.

“Because you have no permit for this event. Everyone must leave the premises." At that point a short occurred in the sound system and smoke began pouring from the speaker to my left. I kept reading.

Later I found out that my ex-wife Julie had attended. She knew that I would never miss something like that and she must have thought it might be the last time she saw me alive. She was gone by the end. Everyone was. When I finished, the area in front of the flatbed truck, where the audience had stood, maybe fifty to seventy-five people at its peak, was empty.

It was just a trod-over field of mud quickly turning to puddles in what had suddenly become a downpour. The cops stayed in their cars and when I jumped down, I was the only one there. I slipped in the mud and glided past the flashing lights blue and red lights. It seemed important to keep running.

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