Location East Williamsburg
Rent $700 (market)
Square feet 1500
Occupant P. Michael Keane (contractor, painter, singer-songwriter)
What a big lobby you have! It’s full of your landlord’s rusting cars and forklifts and then there’s the area with the stained refrigerators. But your loft on the top floor is a white-walled, hardwood-maple-floor palace! I was in love with this Italian woman and I found this space and I built it for her. It was completely abandoned for 23 years, no electricity, not a lightbulb, not a window. I put $18,000 of my own money into it and a solid six months’ work. She went back to Italy two weeks before I finished and never came back. She broke my heart. Three years later, I still haven’t recovered. Now the loft is like Cinderella’s slipper. When I find the right woman, I’ll finally screw the light switches in the bathroom into the wall.
You have a green plastic baby pool on the roof and a 19-foot motorboat in Jamaica Bay. The lifestyle thing is important to me. . . . I grew up on Long Island, Long Beach. My father was an Irish tenor. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show a couple of times. He left my mother and three babies in a four-story walk-up on Mott Street in the middle of winter. Then she moved us to Long Island. My one sister sells shoes in Florida. My other is in a home for the retarded. She lives with me one week every month.
You’re so nice. Not entirely. She does a lot for me. When people grow up in institutions, they grow up feeling they’re the burden of society. She loves to help people. She loves to clean. We’re making paintings together.
What’s interesting is that, unlike many, you’re not moaning about the awful housing situation. You went out and made yourself a nice environment. This was not your first. When I graduated in ’76 from SUNY in New Paltz, I came to New York to be an artist. I realized I had to pay rent. I was in an abandoned summer house in Westhampton back then. Just before it was demolished, I ripped out the sink and the plumbing, brought it all back to New York. I found a raw loft on 26th and Seventh, 1800 square feet, $260 a month. I went to a plumbing supply store, I gave the guy behind the counter 20 bucks. He told me how to weld pipes together. He made me a diagram. I did it. Then my neighbor asked me to do his plumbing. I was broke. I said, OK, I’m a plumber. I did it for $600. I started doing a little electrical. I helped others. I made a lot of mistakes. I felt sorry for people in the beginning. Twenty years later, I’m turning down jobs. My next loft was a sublet on Broome—$200, 1500 square feet. It was illegal and the landlord gave me a week to leave. In ’79, I moved to Warren and Chambers, another disaster. The person who claimed to be the landlord wasn’t. One day he disappears. The whole building gets thrown out. Then, I build a gallery in the Westbeth Theater Center—the Westbeth Painters’ Space. I’ve never lived anywhere legal. In ’87, I moved into a squat on 13th. We put in electrical risers, brought water in. The building was full of garbage. We rented wheelbarrows for each floor and had a ramp going out into a dumpster. We all wore goggles. We did it in one day. Then I moved to Buzios, Brazil, two hours east of Rio. Great fishing. Brigitte Bardot had a house there in the ’50s. I built a house there. I was singing, making a record. I ate lobster every night, ’90, ’91. All of a sudden the Brazilian economy fell apart. I was living with an Argentinian kick boxer. She had a miscarriage. Our dog ate some rat poison. Came back to a loft in Williamsburg on South 5th. Me and my roommates threw a lot of rave parties. We got arrested, I was shackled to a blond lesbian stripper. I’ve been in so many crazy living situations. I shouldn’t even be here.