For exactly one year, from fall 2012 to fall 2013, I went to work every day just a block away from where I lived in the early 1980s. Walking the same route thirty years later, I quickly concluded that no other Manhattan neighborhood could’ve changed as much as the meatpacking district. And after a few months of plowing up and down that still-familiar stretch of west 15th Street, I heard echoes of the 80s and the music in the street.
Home was the stark white three-story building on the north corner, across the street from the Apple Store today. A nameless Greek coffee shop, run by three separate men called “Georgie,” occupied the entire first floor. On 14th Street other neighbors included: faded Irish bar with live bluegrass music, failing Metro supermarket, busy beer distributor’s outlet, busy bicycle shop, gypsy fortune teller living with her family in a storefront that doubled as her salon. According to the sign, that is. I walked past the picture window every day and never once saw Madame with a client.
Around the corner on 9th Avenue neighbor sat The Old Homestead Steakhouse. A hulking neon-lit replica steer stood guard over the restaurant’s canopied and carpeted entranceway. Our front door, next to the Homestead’s satellite butcher shop, had just been painted a flagrant shade of red. Look for a red door underneath the cow sign, I’d tell my infrequent guests. You couldn’t miss it.
There was no intercom system in the building. Visitors had to bring a dime for the pay phone, and call me from across the street.
Crossing 9th Avenue and continuing west on 14th Street felt like falling off the map. During the day the meat-packers’ market formed a bleak panorama. By noon the butchers were finished with work and mostly gone. Even after the cobblestones were cleansed of the pre-dawn bloodbath, the streets still reeked. Open dumpsters and rubber trash barrels lined the sidewalks, filled to the rims with freshly rendered hunks of peppermint-striped animal fat. Forget about the rats; in the meatpacking district the flies were scary.
After dark the warehouses turned into hives of activity, much of it furtive. Camouflaged in black leathers, men prowled the shadowy blocks all night long, loners and duos stalking past the packs gathered near a doorway or loading dock. Were there dozens of people walking around on any given night, or hundreds, bar-hopping between the murky nightclubs and after-hours spots? I can’t say. It always looked like a lot of guys from across the street.
Around the building I hardly ever laid eyes on the other tenants. And when I did, passing them in the hall, the vast majority registered as taciturn, reluctant, grunting avoiders of eye contact.
There were exceptions. Bette lived right across the hall, with her husband Abe, a disabled man who barely left their studio apartment. She played Mom, always asking how I was doing even though she was obviously struggling with her husband. He must’ve been nearly 80, she looked younger, maybe 60. Her face was wizened, worn-out, yet Bette had a ready, raspy hack of a laugh. I’d see her at the Irish bar, through the window, smoking and nursing a Bud bottle. Between her warm drawl and crooked teeth, I pegged her as an Appalachian immigrant, though I never inquired.
The local equivalent of Frank and Jeff lived down the hall. Barry occupied the relatively spacious corner apartment; he was an obvious-gay type of guy, clean-cut and genial, always smiling. We got along on the smallest of small talk. Mr. Charles lived alone, next door to Barry’s place. A portly man in his 60s, Mr. Charles wore a bad toupee and insisted that I take his card the first time we bumped into each other. Stanley Charles: Theatrical & Show Business Agent. I endured his inevitable recruiting pitch. After that, I enacted a policy of not saying more than “hello” to Mr. Charles.
Gradually, even the eye-contact avoiders became familiar figures.
My apartment was located next to the stairwell, conveniently allowing for quick ins and outs as well as guaranteeing a bare minimum of neighbor sightings. A pair of virtually identical women lived next door on the other side: dyed-blondes with masculine haircuts, fire-hydrant bodies and the hard-bitten demeanor of old-fashioned stereotypical lesbians. For months or maybe longer I assumed they were the same person and I’m still not completely sure. Perhaps my memory has perfected cloning.
Beside Barry two other residents appeared to be roughly around my age. Subject One was a spiky peroxide-blond scarecrow, the kind of dude who dutifully wore the punk rock uniform year-round: black leather jacket, jeans, t-shirt, Converse high-top sneakers. I nicknamed him the Horror-Rocker. Naturally I suspected he was a junkie.
His apparent friend or sidekick or partner in crime was a middle-aged Hispanic woman who lived down the hall. She wore the uniform of a school crossing guard. (I often saw her in action at the P.S. near the housing projects on 17th, leading the children across 9th avenue.) Theirs was an unlikely relationship to say the least. It only heightened my unease about the Horror-Rocker.
Even more disquieting was Subject Two, whom I unimaginatively nicknamed the Crazy Guy. He sported shoulder-length reddish blond locks and the bushy beard of an Old Testament prophet, or Charlie Manson. Every Sunday his elderly mother came to visit. I ran into them all the time: sitting in the diner or walking arm in arm, painfully slow, the little old lady and the lug. She was, of course, the only person I saw ever with him.
Most of the time the Crazy Guy hurried past me, eyes fixed on the ground. The few instances when we established eye contact were frightening. His pupils glowed like bloodshot lasers, inflamed with anger, fueled by unfathomable rage. He made me step back.
Occasionally, a knock on the door would interrupt my reverie. On Sunday mornings I received regular visits from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists – I learned how to tell the difference. One Saturday evening I fielded an inquiry from a determined young black guy who insisted his sister was hiding from him inside my apartment. “I know you’ve got her in there!”
I let him take a quick look over my shoulder, and the sight of an empty room apparently calmed him down “Sorry, my man.” After he disappeared down the hall, I realized my heart was pounding.
For the most part nobody bothered me. I became absorbed by the solitary pursuits of reading, writing, listening to music. I learned to cook on the creaky stove, bought discount groceries from the Western Beef retail outlet one block west on 14th Street.
When I wasn’t going out.
Living in cramped quarters propelled me outward, into the world. And the immediate environs, the neighborhood right outside my door, propelled me further still, to another – any other – part of town. More and more, beginning in 1982, my life occurred in public places.