Sacramental Cactus

I have war clubs, tomahawks strategically placed around the apartment

 LOCATION Chinatown
RENT $500 [rent stabilized]
SQUARE FEET 400 [four rooms in 1880s walk-up]
OCCUPANT David Nathan Allen [graphic designer, Lord & Taylor; painter]

All the tents hanging over the bed, it's so psychedelic. Of course, I don't mean to imply . . . No, it is. I was art director for High Times right at the height of the Reagan drug wars.

That! You have a chartreuse refrigerator and a black bathroom. And a black, fluffy toilet cover. When I first moved into this building in 1984, they still had toilets in the hallway.

David Nathan Allen
photo: Cary Conover
David Nathan Allen

You're near a palm reader. We've got spas, Chinese businesses, the all-night Bengali place for the taxi drivers. When I first moved in, this building was owned by an Italian. I heard there'd been a mob hit in a restaurant downstairs. The landlord was collecting $200 rents. You could see Gotti on a regular basis.

A Chinese man is sitting in the hall on the stairs reading a newspaper—so hot and crumbling. One apartment has nine guys living in it, cubicles with three tiers of bunk beds. Downstairs, men and women are packed into one apartment. The guy sleeps in his hallway on a platform. In the summer, my hallway starts to smell. I used to work at the Soho News with three other people who lived here. It's pretty much how I got in. I'm from London, north.

I smell incense. Nag champa. It's one of those smells that's familiar and unfamiliar, and that's what I find intriguing about it. I was just in Glastonbury, a place I liked to go to as a teenager, being with a big bunch of people for weeks. Once these guys dragged carpets into an old medieval tower. We lived there for a while. After High Times, I got heavily into painting—Native American, shamanic. I'll show you this book I had as a little kid. [He leaves the room. I study the strange roots and cacti growing about the place.] Here.

Indian Crafts and Lore with drawings of buffalo, moccasins. It sparked my interest in mushrooms and herbs—peyote, for instance. All this pottery I have comes from the Peyote Way Church of God.

Are we going to have some now? It was founded by this old Apache who believed peyote should be used by everybody. That was an influence on my work. Prior to 9-11, I was planning to move out to New Mexico, pursue my painting. I was working down at the New York Mercantile Exchange designing a publication. We finished the week before. After 9-11, work was hard to come by. That's what made me give up half the apartment.

You used to have seven rooms. In the beginning, I was married. There was room for the ex-wife, the ex-girlfriend, roommates. When I first moved in, it was me and a big cokehead. The rent had been $700. It rose to $795. The Italian landlord sold it to a man in a hat in Williamsburg and this man set about knocking this building apart. Most of the tenants fled. He wasn't fixing the violations. I withheld rent. By '92, I got a rollback from $925 to $795. Then I gave up three rooms if he'd lower it to $500. We've had three brothels in this building and I've reported every one. I walked by a door one day and I heard an old man going—ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. They turn on the TV really loud. You saw the pimp, a little Chinese guy wearing thick-rimmed glasses. One brothel was run by an old lady. Old men were the customers. I had a burglary. I fought and struggled with the guy in the bathroom. I finally locked him in and he hit his head on the toilet. I have war clubs, tomahawks I've made and strategically placed around the apartment . . . Enki, Enki, come on out. [The cat comes out.] He's been living here 14 years. It's amazing how they stay kittens even though they get old. Here's a painting.

A shaman! Peyote growing up his legs, snakes going on. The only ghost I ever saw was in broad daylight but that was in Chaco Canyon. My sister saw it too.

What does your sister do? She lives in a cave in Spain.


schlesinger@villagevoice.com

 
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