For many, the Lower East Side represented much more than a geographic location with ever-changing borders. The L.E.S. was a magical kingdom where almost anything seemed possible and we felt we had the freedom to be whoever we wanted to be, to say whatever we needed to say, and the right to make our own choices. Our choices define our character.
In 1998, for whatever reason, William “Billy” Leroy and I kept crossing paths. I learned that he was the sales manager for Rob Fennick, the owner of the tent at Elizabeth and Houston Sts. The only time I remember being in Rob’s store was in 1992. Rob’s lot, as described by an 8-foot-high, chain-link fence, ran from Elizabeth St. to the Bowery, and included The Wall, made famous by Keith Haring. In the summer of 1992 Elsa and I took over The Wall and painted one of my artworks on it. Time passed. In 2003, Rob retired, and Billy took over the tent and renamed it Billy’s Antiques & Props.
In 2005, on Halloween, Billy married his longtime partner, musician Lorraine Leckie. The ceremony and party took place in the tent. Billy was dressed in a Brooklyn 14th Regiment Civil War uniform, and Lorraine was pure punk rock. It was after the wedding that I started to spend more time at Billy’s and learned more about him. Turns out his attraction to the L.E.S. had to do with being a creative misfit who came down here to find himself.
Billy grew up on the Upper East Side. He went to a number of different privileged prep schools in places like Connecticut and Switzerland. His French father’s side of the family is titled aristocracy and wealthy. His mother was a novel writer. He played football at Northeastern University and semipro with the Bronx Crusaders, and ended up getting a three-year associate’s degree at the Art Institute of Boston.
Lorraine Leckie, his wife, is carving out her own singer/songwriter career. Her band, Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, features the hugely talented backup musicians Huge Pool, as well as George Michael Jackson on guitars and Paul Triff on drums. Bill has a lovely daughter, Celina, from his first wife, and she’s now finishing up an art degree. We all expect Celina to do well as an artist.
Billy’s first job after college was as an advertising executive for a white-shoe advertising agency, Gray Advertising. He hated it. Although Billy came from privilege, he felt the need to turn his back on his access to the so-called good life and heard the L.E.S. call his name. His first Downtown venture produced the rough and ready Biker Billy.
Biker Billy was as real as it gets, but in the end, belonging to a motorcycle club wasn’t the fit he was looking for. It was a gradual process, but, eventually salesman Biker Billy morphed into sideshow Bowery Billy.
Bowery Billy was a better fit. He changed his dress to a more Upper East Side look. A look befitting his background. He had found the skin he was comfortable wearing. His personality changed as well. Bowery Billy was more carnival, more outgoing, gregarious, welcoming. The attention to place increased. And of course, one thing that made Billy’s such an attraction was his good eye for an undiscovered treasure. Collector Billy had the ability to stock a worthy, must-have item to fit any social class’s buying interest. His customers ranged from the elite in the culture and money world, to the scratching-to-get-by homeless person. Something good for everyone.
I found his tent to be a fascinating place to hang out and take photographs. Eventually a scene develops. People of interest start to show up and hang around or take their time passing through. Anton Newcome from the Brian Jonestown Massacre left a strong impression. James Tully used Billy’s environment to try and make the great American Super 8 movie. Paul Sevigny, impresario of Beatrice nightclub fame, was a frequent visitor. Club designer and Blackbook magazine publisher Steve Lewis comes by looking for valuable decorative oddities. Numerous fashion shots and movies were done in the tent.
With the influx of photo and video shoots Billy’s discovers his love of the camera. A flashback to high school drama, he had found his next adventure. Handsome Billy, performer, model and actor. Suddenly, he’s photographed by the famous, like Bruce Weber, as well as speaking in a cameo role in the 2007 feature film “The Guitar,” directed by Amy Redford.
By now Billy had learned how to be his own P.R. agent, and he began reeling in a full load of press. One clever advertising ploy he got free press on was built on making the statement that Billy would only accept euros. The Villager’s January 2008 article about his “euros only” placard (“With dollar down, euromania sweeps Downtown”) sparked a media feeding frenzy. Quickly, all hell broke loose and images of Bowery Billy and his tent circulated around the globe multiple times.
Around this time, Bowery Billy now feels ready to re-enter the uptown cultural world and says he will get me a much-needed establishment gallery to show my work. Billy connects me for a major one-man show at Chelsea’s prestigious Kinz, Tillou + Feigen Fine Art gallery. Billy becomes my front person. At the same time, Ben Solomon, Dan Levin and Jenner Furst, working with the backing of Blowback Productions, are making “Captured,” the documentary dealing with Elsa’s and my archives. Billy appears in the movie as Billy My Frontman. The movie is Billy’s first staring role and he has the fever: Billy wants to act.
As a team, we all participate in getting “Captured” out to the public, and Billy and I spend more time socializing. Billy is losing his interest in being the center of attention in a tattered and torn tent with no heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. And besides, most of the new Downtown gentry are wearing his pet peeve — flip-flops — and wanting Rag & Bone accessories, and are boring. The landscape has changed from wild and dangerous to dull and lackluster. Time to think about moving on. Time to think outside the tent, especially when you add in a rent that’s becoming too expensive to pay every month.
Jenner Furst, Dan Levin and Julia Nason write, direct and shoot the movie “Dirty Old Town” — a script loosely based around the life of Billy and his tent. As professionals, Furst and Levin have worked on a number of HBO and TV specials, for example, the award-winning Sundance Channel special series “Brick City,” Dan as camerman and Jenner as editor. Billy finds his stride as an actor in “DOT” and nails his role. The movie is stocked full of interesting characters leading bizarre Downtown N.Y.C. lives, an incredibly imaginative and funny script. Like “Captured,” the movie, “DOT” is developing cult status and becoming a favorite for those film buffs who know how to sniff out a good movie.
Billy has survived the knockout punch of gentrification and found a way to embrace it. Out of all the flotsam and jetsam that floated through his tent, reality show people were a high number of the visitors. They were always scouting around looking for new drama. After about three attempts to work Billy plying his trade into a reality TV show, we’ll see if the one he is cast in, “Baggage Battles,” premiering April 11 at 10 p.m., is the show that hits the mark: Billy as a leading star and this show gives him his first taste of fame. Will the show be a hit or miss? The day after it premieres on the Travel Channel, he’ll know — Yes, I am a star! Or, next time, maybe?