Susan Brownmiller Hangs with Junkies
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 22, 1965, Vol. X, No. 40
Washington Sq.: 'Man, That's My Living Room!'
By Susan Brownmiller
Friday night. The New York University people meet with Park Commissioner Newbold Morris and representatives of the Police Department's First Division. Professor William Grossman and Dr. Howard Green present their petition of 1,180 names -- gathered in a one week period. "Conditions intolerable," the petition states. "Groups have taken over large segments of the park, virtually making it their home...persistently engaging in offensive activity...noise...obscene language... drinking... staggering... littering... accosting... urinating... lying on benches... conspicuous lovemaking... unsuitable for children."
Friday night. The Park Department puts wooden horses near the fountain and stages another round of square dancing for the dwindling respectables. Cute, clean parkies in checkered shirts teach the children how to dosey-do and grand right and left. "Okay everybody," says a phys ed type in sneakers, "Let's do the hokey pokey."
"Would you believe it," says a peroxided young man with face makeup. "Four of those girls are really guys in drag." He sashays off with his hand on his hip.
Friday night. The chess players desert as the light goes. The Washington Square mothers who cling to the park's outer edges have long since tucked their charges into bed. The dog walkers have walked the dogs home to Alp and Ken-L-Ration. The real life of the park begins.
Bill asks for a cigarette and offers to introduce me to some of his friends. He says he's an engineer from Binghamton. It turns out later he's a hairdresser from Brooklyn. He takes me over to Carol, sitting alone on a bench, looking anxious. She is 18, blond, four months in the park from Jacksonville, Florida.
"My girlfriend went off to panhandle," she says, teasing her hair. "I'm not so good at it." She giggles. "I'm looking for my contact. I'm an uphead. On Benzedrine and Dex."
"I'm showing Susan the park, Carol. She's a reporter." Carol nods.
"This is junkies' row right here," she explains. "Everybody here's an uphead or a downhead. Over there is faggot row and past it is dike row. Last summer at home we went over to St. Augustine every night for the riots. It was great fun. I love chaos." A cop walks by and Carol squeals. "I think he's looking for my contact, too."
"Have you seen Cooker, Carol?"
"No, I'm looking for him, too. Did you hear? Cooker got busted."
"I heard it from Cooker. He was driving with a guy who had the stuff in his car and they went through two red lights. That wasn't smart of Cooker. They cut his hair off in the police station."
"They took out his earring."
"But he's out now."
"Yeah. Have you heard him play? Cooker's a genius."
"Yeah. I need a place to sleep tonight." A girl walks by and kisses Carol and Bill in passing. "Stay away from her, she's a nymph," Carol warns. "She's waiting for Brian Jones to come and take her to England. Would you treat me to an ice?"
"We've got to look for Cooker, Carol."
"Hey, look there's Wolfman. Wolfman's one of the original Hell's Angels." Wolfman comes up.
"You're a a reporter, why don't you say something nice about the Hell's Angels?"
"How many Hell's Angels are there?" I ask.
"Twenty thousand," he says. "And I'll tell you something. They're all going to be here next month. That's a fact." He saunters off.
We walk over to where a trio of downheads lie in the grass in a barbiturate funk. "These guys blow with Cooker," says Bill. "Hey, man, you see Cooker?"
"Yeah, man. He was just here. He was taking a girl to the subway."
"I saw him this afternoon. He was taking a girl to the subway."
"Yeah." We sit down on the grass and wait for him. Dave, who blows with Cooker, shows us his boots. Snazzy little black suede jobs with cowboy heels.
"Cool," says Bill. Cooker has those boots, too, doesn't he?"
"Cooker got them first, didn't he?"
"Yeah." We sit pulling up little tufts of grass and wait. "Man, there he is, there's Cooker." An American version of Ringo Starr. Big lips, big eyes, big eyebrows, and despite the police atrocity, pretty long hair. Cooker sits down and begins to discuss music.
"The English sound. That's our style. The Beatles are out, man. It's the Rolling Stones. The Stones are the end. Brian James's guitar cost $2000..."
"There's a lot of talent in this part," says Bill.
"The Stones have this new song," says Cooker. "'Satisfaction.' The words don't make sense. It's the greatest." Cooker and his group used to play the high schools in White Plains before they came to the park and in his words, "fell in with the life."
"Our name is the Subterraneans," he says. "In White Plains some girl I knew read a book by that name and the Subterraneans were the down to earth people who weren't phony."
...It is after midnight. The police begin the job of clearing out the park. Two couples are lying locked in a deep soul kissing. A Negro derelict who had been drinking from a bottle in a paper bag is passed out on a bench. A tall young white boy who looks like a basketball player goes over to him and makes a big show of trying to sit him up. "Come on, come on, get up," he says while his hand searches the bum's pockets. He finds nothing and walks away jauntily...
"You gotta meet Josie," says Bill. "Josie's the queen of the faggots." We trot over to faggot row.
"Didn't you hear? Josie got busted, right here in the park. For female impersonation."
"What a drag."
"Yeah. But she'll beat the rap. All she had on was face makeup. She was dressed in man's clothes, for god's sake. It'll never stand up in court. Josie'll say the makeup was for acne."
"Sure. Did you hear? Cooker got busted."
"Yeah. But he's out."
"Yeah. They're trying to clear us out of the park, but they'll never get me out. This is my home."
Saturday morning. The sun is bright and hot. The benches are slowly filling with last night's people. "We picked up 13 skels last night," says a young redhaired policeman. "The judge who's sitting today gives 30 days. It's not worth more than a couple of days usually. We had one guy who turned out to be an accountant. We found him asleep this morning in the fountain. We let him go. He probably had a fight with his wife.
Zaroom. A motorscooter cop rides up. "A Negro guy over there is acting strange. Yelling he's a Karate expert. If I pick him up a hundred people are going to yell police brutality."
"You missed a good one last night," says the young cop. "A dike named Vicki. She took an O.D. We took her to the hospital. She was tattooed all over with girls' names."
The Friday meeting with the park commissioner and the police has instituted some changes on Saturday. The normal police squad of two men, plus a scooter cop at night and on weekends, has been augmented to four men and a scooter cop on duty at all times. They hover uncomfortably near the public relief station.
"What can we do?" says the young cop. "We clear out the skels and they come right back. There's no law against sitting on a park bench in a stupor. A lady comes running over and says a man shouted obscenities at her. We ask her if she wants to go down to the station and lodge a complaint and she backs off. When I walk through, everybody stops talking. I'd rather be out walking a beat."
It's a problem.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
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