Railroad Apartment in Tenement


Location Hell’s Kitchen

Rent $764 (rent stabilized)

Square feet 800

Occupant Hugo Martinez (owner, Martinez Gallery)

This “twig tea” is the closest thing to cocaine? Well! So, you are New York’s graffiti art entrepreneur, galleries for 30 years—Washington Heights, Chelsea, and now Greenpoint, in part of the former Eberhard Faber pencil factory. You had it designed by Dutch architects—orange modular pillows. Your own life, you moved around, in and out like spray paint. The illest! Today we sit in Hell’s Kitchen. My girlfriend’s not here. We just broke up. She’s living with someone else. I’ve been here eight years. When anybody asks where I live, I say Rego Park. Graffiti artists, if they find out where you live, forget it. The next thing they want to do is come bomb. I was born on 50th between Eighth and Ninth, across from the old Madison Square Garden, 1951. We moved to Madison Street, to Pitt Street, to Chicago, to Puerto Rico, to 65th between Central Park West and Columbus. There were two worlds on that street, us on the north, what looked like West Side Story. On the south: upper-class, affluent, lots of Jews. We had the better view. Then we moved to hotels, like rooming houses—the Nevada, the Sherman Square, the Embassy—where a lot of the old Jewish vaudevillians were. My old man was a jeweler and a dental technician. In those days, technicians did door to door, without a license. I grew up listening to “Aaaaaaaahhhhh.” My old man was always a traveling salesman, big womanizer. My mother was a secretary. They’d always fight. She told him to go fuck himself and threw him out. I was an only child. My mother got an abortion because she didn’t want to put anybody else through this. They were almost like the excommunicated bourgeoisie. My grandparents in Puerto Rico all had properties. When we went back, we were always ostracized. Here, I was faced with poor Puerto Ricans, different species.

There’s a famous song by the most important composer in Cuban music, Arsenio Rodriguez. He was blind. He sings, “en el twentee tree de la sisty fee.” The song’s about fire. One day I said, “Ma, this sounds like our building,” 23 West 65th. She said, “Arsenio was the fat man who used to sit in front.” He turned his biggest fear into this song. Landlords would start fires to get people out. There was a fire in the basement and the roof at the same time. Raul, the neighbor, said Arsenio was the only person who could maneuver his way about the building without sight. He formed a human chain and led the other tenants to safety.

My mother had a vision of me growing up in suburbia or something. We went back to Puerto Rico to live in Levittown in the middle of no place—he built one there. We lasted about two months, then back to New York: Elmhurst, Queens. We lived this pseudo-suburban life. Then I became a hippie. I brought pot into the neighborhood, long hair and bullshit. We lived above an old German who would sit in the dark. “Mr. Matzen,” I’d say, “what’d you do in the 1930s?” He said, “I vas a postman in the var.” Ah, right.

I went to Brandeis High School, 84th, because it was cool to be in Manhattan. I took a cab every day, $3.20 from Elmhurst. One day I saw this amazon, a modern dancer from Utah, walking down the street. She stopped my heart and four other organs. We got married, 1970. By then I was organizing student rebellions.

We moved to 89th between Riverside and West End, where my son was born. One day I’m watching kids playing, a Hasidim school on that block. I said, I don’t want my kids growing up like this, end up being upper-middle-class and not be able to associate with the mainstream. We moved up to Washington Heights. My daughter still lives there, the same apartment she was born in. I never married Puerto Rican. They weren’t the same economic class. How’s the tea?

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