The first apartment I ever had, the first lease I ever signed—OK, so my dad had to pay the first and last months’ rent and the broker’s fee, but I still signed it—was on East 9th between First and Second avenues, and cost $135 a month. It was on the first floor, burglar-friendly, and the layout was such that one friend, seeing it for the first time, noted that you could kill yourself by sticking your head in the oven without having to get out of bed.
Lots of people think that those days—the late 1970s and early 1980s—were really the best days of New York, and it’s true that the city—despite (or maybe because of) the legendary graffiti, the burgeoning art scene, the clattery punk bands, and a general climate, especially in my neighborhood, of weirdness and unease—did have an undeniable louche, gritty glamour.
Back then, I was in the grips of two seemingly opposite obsessions: an infatuation with vintage fashion, as if Scott Fitzgerald lived next door to me instead of the creepy guy with the cobra and no visible means of support, and the mad certainty, shared by a lot of my friends, that a Marxist revolution, led by students and workers (we were mostly neither, but so what?), was just around the corner.
So there I was, dressed in thrift-shop ensembles from stores like Love Saves the Day (remarkably still in business on the corner of Second Avenue and 7th Street), topped with a moth-riddled raccoon coat from Ridge Antique Furs (its space on St. Marks now occupied by a restaurant called Klong), a copy of Lenin’s State and Revolution tucked neatly into my alligator purse.
Just because I inhabited a mythical Manhattan of flappers and bathtub gin didn’t inure me to the contemporary charms of the neighborhood. My best friend lived at 269 East 10th Street, and I was young enough to think this was funny—double 69! I went with him to see shaky underground films by Beth B and Seth B in an empty storefront on St. Marks Place, and I sat there in my tattered velvets, bored and shivering and wishing I was home watching Charlie’s Angels or The Love Boat.
Inevitably, if you lived in the area at that time, you went to CBGB on the Bowery, now a John Varvatos store. I remember seeing Debbie Harry there and gazing in awe as she combed and tossed her blond hair onstage. I was happier watching Alberta Hunter at the Cookery on the corner of 8th and University. The Cookery was replaced by a BBQ restaurant; it’s now boarded up, but I suspect a bank is on the way. Hunter, a blues singer who had been a big musical star in the 1920s, faded into total obscurity for decades but re-emerged triumphant in the 1970s.
The East Village boasted a thriving gallery district a few blocks away from my apartment, but I have no memory of ever setting foot in even one of these places. My double-69 friend and I preferred pleasures more cerebral than aesthetic—debating the fine points of anarcho-syndicalism at DeRobertis, in business since 1904 at 176 First Avenue (its Belle Époque interior still suits me perfectly), or gorging on pizza and Isaac Deutscher at the Orchidia, for years on the corner of 9th and Second where a Starbucks now stands. On an empty Saturday afternoon, I would rifle through chest-high stacks of smelly vintage clothes at Bogeys, the filthy den on 10th Street—now the site of a copy shop—though other people always seemed to extract far better frocks from those fetid piles.
Sometimes, around 11 o’clock at night, I would walk to my corner for an early edition of The New York Times (I think it cost a quarter, but don’t quote me) for sale outside the Veselka. Back then, Veselka was nothing but a grubby counter in front and a strange little back room with a wooden staircase to nowhere that had gingerbread cutouts, which gave the place the odd air of a Lower East Side Alpine retreat.
I would sit at the counter and order a bowl of vegetable soup, which came with two slices of rye bread—a midnight snack—and stare with horror and curiosity at the shabby guy across from me who had amputated fingers and seemed to always be there. Then I headed home, conscious of the pools of light thrown by the street lamps. It was less than a full block to my house and there were almost always people around, but muggings—which Musto may be nostalgic for, but I’m not—were a distinct possibility in those days.
I still walk through the East Village practically every day—the Voice offices are down the block from Cooper Union—but I don’t think about those times as much as you might think. When I pass the corner of Second Avenue and 5th Street, I don’t find myself remembering, “That was the Binibon restaurant,” though I must have eaten the greasy chicken salad there hundreds of times. The Binibon became famous when it hired ex-con Jack Henry Abbott as a busboy in 1981. Abbott, the author of a prison memoir called In the Belly of the Beast, was a prodigy of Norman Mailer’s, who engineered his release. One night, Abbott had words with a customer and asked him to step outside, where he proceeded to stab him to death. He was reincarcerated and died in prison in 2002. Now, even Mailer is dead, and there’s a cool new restaurant, Kurve, that looks like a spaceship where the Binibon once stood.
I was never tempted to stick my head in the oven of my apartment on 9th Street. I continued to pay the rent, which was a stretch since I made $110 a week. Now it’s old news that you can’t rent an apartment on 9th Street for even 10 times that amount—and it’s easy to spend $110 for dinner for two on Avenue B.
Still, sometimes when I’m walking down St. Marks, where Trash and Vaudeville miraculously continues to sell tutus and bondage pants from its perch near Third Avenue, I’ll catch sight of somebody really young—so young that maybe she has the bottom of her school uniform rolled into a plaid mini, with her hair dyed pink and her lip or tongue decorated with a sad little piercing—and I’ll feel certain that she’s dreaming of having a bowl of soup in a dive at midnight all by herself one day.