A long time ago, we read a story about Allen Ginsberg, early in his adult life, making a living as a market researcher and pouring out his miserable heart to his psychiatrist. “Well, what is it you really want to do, Allen?” the doctor asked him. “Write poems,” Ginsberg sighed. “So write poems!” the therapist said.
We always derived great strength from this anecdote, since our own quirky aspirations turned out by some miracle to constitute a viable professional life. And of course we’ve always loved Allen, so brave and smart and unafraid to be dorky with his big glasses and his harmonium.
Still, that alone probably wouldn’t get us to the Howl Festival, named in honor of Ginsberg’s most famous work, but as it turns out Wigstock, an event we have religiously attended for years, has now been folded into the Howl roster and is scheduled to take place in Tompkins Square Park on August 27 at 5 p.m. We loved Wigstock when it was on the West Side piers—the hot sun beating down on a series of drag acts that went on for eight or nine hours, the show ending long after sundown with John Kelly as Joni Mitchell singing his special “Wigstock” lyrics.
In anticipation of Wiggy coming up—now squeezed into a delightfully manageable two hours—we stroll over to Tompkins Square, down the same streets Allen had in mind when he wrote so famously in Howl about the best minds of his generation dragging themselves around at dawn looking for an angry fix.
As it turns out, some people are still searching for that fix: fifty years after Howl was written, signs posted around the park, just a few blocks from where Ginsberg lived most of his life, read: “Caution: bad dope/coke in the Lower East Side, three known deaths so far.”
Our plan is to check out the retail scene on the streets directly facing the park, hoping to find something nutty that fits the mood of the festival. Alphabets, a store at 115 Avenue A that specializes in quirky toys and accessories, has shirts in the window reading “Crack is Wack” and the rather icky “Hugs Not Drugs” (timely, certainly); inside, a rack of those Penguin Munsingwear shirts, some polo, some button-down, are 30 percent off prices that mostly hover around $50. We always liked these Penguins, with their sly wink at 1950s daddy style, but they don’t really make the kind of outre Wigstock statement we’re after. A few doors down, yet more tees are available—in fact they’re the only things available—at a shop whose names appears to be tees.com where the draw is that you customize the slogan on your shirt. These days, it seems, a wacky slogan more and more takes the place of a wacky outfit.
Which is a shame. Still, just when we think these park-rimming blocks are pretty much a retail washout, we come to Blue, which has an ATM machine literally stuck in its exterior and a fabulous gaggle of silk and taffeta ball gowns within. How those Wigstock gals would love to swish and sway in one of these! Alas, it is not to be—these are serious dresses for serious young ladies and they cost serious money: One glance inside reveals fluttering bridesmaid types, not chicks with something extra.
But even as we get ready to turn east on 10th Street we see a couple of rickety tables filled with banana-colored undershirts that say Tompkins Square New York” and short-sleeved shirts silk-screened with black and white graffiti prints. If you’re going to wear a T-shirt (and, sadly, we guess you and millions of other Americans are) these are at least very well designed. Looking around for the proprietor, we spot him sitting half in, half out of a car parked nearby. “Are you here all the time?” we ask, not anxious to write about something people won’t be able to find. “I’m here for the festival—I used to be have Snake and Son studio on Ninth Street! I’ll be set up on this block through next week!”
We continue to circumnavigate the park, but it’s mostly residential with few businesses and no retail stores. When we pass the building at 127 Avenue B and the corner of East 8th Street, known in the late 19th century as the Newsboys’ and Bootblacks’ Lodging House, we’re put in mind of a story that we saw weeks ago on New York One and that has been bothering us ever since: it seems that children have been sent home from New York City swimming pools this summer because they lack proper bathing suits—no swimming in shorts or underpants is allowed, even if that’s all you have.
You’d think over a century after that home for boys opened on Avenue B we would have reached a point where every kid could at least have a cheap bathing suit. Another reason to howl.