“‘THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a non-drug hip any more. Drugs just became part of the hip — an increasingly important part of it. The Village went right from folk music to amphetamine. Somewhere around ’63, suddenly there were drugs all over the place.’ Brendan Sexton, clean-cut, handsome, all-American, looks like the last guy in the world who ought to know. But, at 21, he is a redeemed veteran of the teenage drug scene.”
So begins Stephanie Harrington’s “How to Reform Without Really Going Square,” a feature story that ran in the Village Voice 49 years ago this week.
Drawing on the points of view of Sexton and two other “good-looking, bright, sensitive, and reformed high-school hopheads” — Sexton’s first wife Lynn and a guy named Jan Stacy — Harrington sketched the “teen drug scene” on MacDougal Street.
Sexton told of ditching school at Forest Hills High to hang out in the Village, where he and his pals got “caught up in that whole mystique of drugs.” Weed, hash, speed, booze. “‘One kid had an apartment with his mother, but he kicked her out,’ Sexton recounted. ‘Before that, though, his mother used to sit in the kitchen while he was shooting up in the bedroom.'”
By the time Harrington meets with them, all three are sober (thanks to “the help of a Synanon type of group therapy”) and attending college (“Brendan at NYU, Lynn at Cooper Union, and Jan at City”). Having concluded that the drug lifestyle is “empty and phony,” they’re in the nascent stages of putting together a space in the Village where they can help young people reach the same conclusion:
“They want to set up their own rescue operation, to get a building or a coffee shop or an apartment on MacDougal Street where they can conduct therapy sessions, have guitars available, hold lectures and seminars.”
Harrington concludes by writing, “As of now, they are trying to raise funds for their project — from, among other sources, the city’s Youth Board. Which is not so far-fetched, since at this point their approach is more imaginative than anything the city has come up with.”
A half-century later, it may sound too goofy to be true. It certainly did to one Irwin Gooen, who wrote to the Voice the following week to opine that Sexton and co. had “learned just about nothing from their past experiences. Still maintaining a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, they have just shifted ‘sides’ on the drug issue.”
If anything, the adolescent antics now ring a tinge urban-romantic, in the Jim Carroll/Basketball Diaries sense. (Here’s Jan describing the thrill of stealing chairs from factories on Seventh Avenue: “It wasn’t the chairs we were after, but the excitement. Climbing over roofs and up and down fire escapes in the dark. Sometimes we’d sell the chairs to a couple of fags. They’d give us a dime or a quarter a chair, and we’d tie ropes around them and they’d haul them up through their window. They might have refinished and sold them. Or maybe they were just trying to lure us up to their apartment.”)
But Sexton’s drug-counseling dream actually came true. True to his word, the Queens native founded a nonprofit called Encounter Inc.
And that was only the beginning, as the Voice learned when we caught up with Brendan Sexton, who’s now 70, earlier this week.
After a stint at the NYC Addiction Services Agency, Sexton went to work at the city’s Office of Management and Budget, then served under Ed Koch as director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. In 1986 he was appointed the city’s sanitation commissioner, a post he held for four years. (His most significant legacy as top trash man: a gluey, “fairly ugly Day-Glo green” sticker, affixed to the windshields of parking scofflaws, that read, “This Vehicle Violates N.Y.C. Parking Regulations. As a Result, This Street Could Not Be Properly Cleaned.”) Then a term as president of the Municipal Art Society, followed in 1998 by a stint at the top of the Times Square Business Improvement District.
Stephanie Harrington couldn’t have known all that in 1966. But thanks to a pair of profiles (linked above) that appeared in the New York Times in the intervening years, we know that she did opt not to mention that the pillar-of-public-service-to-be she was profiling stood all of five foot five.
“There’s no such thing as a non-drug hip any more. Drugs just became part of the hip — an increasingly important part of it. The Village went right from folk music to amphetamine. Somewhere around ’63, suddenly there were drugs all over the place.” Brendan Sexton, Clean-cut, handsome, all-American, looks like the last guy in the world who ought to know. But, at 21, he is a redeemed veteran of the teenage drug scene.
These days Sexton could probably make that scene without ever leaving the locker room of his alma mater, Forest Hills High. But back in ’61 the suburbs were relatively clean and high-school kids still had to commute to their highs.
“Growing up frightened the hell out of me. I started not going to school. One year I cut 47 times. I was a kid who wrote poetry, who didn’t like folk music particularly, but listened to it — the kind of kid who thinks of the Village. Boy, if you want to run away from anything the Village is the place. You can do whatever you want. You don’t know what you want, but nobody bothers you. And you get taught up in that whole mystique of drugs. I started staying up all night and sleeping away from home. I met kids who lived in the Village or on the East Side. One kid had an apartment with his mother, but he kicked her out. Before that, though, his mother used to sit in the kitchen while he was shooting up in the bedroom. His father was a postal clerk. He ran off when the kid was two. Sometimes I’d stay in friends’ apartments and sometimes I’d just sleep in the park. It was the equivalent of Jan’s stealing things from those factories up on Seventh Avenue.”
Around the Corner
Jan is Jan Stacy. He and Brendan’s wife, Lynn, were childhood friends. They, too, are good-,poking, bright, sensitive, and reformed high-school hopheads. The only difference is that they are three years younger than Brendan and they grew up in the Village where the kicks were right around the corner.
They started out on their pill popping odysseys in search of excitement. It could have been anything. A few years earlier they might have found it in belonging to a gang. “There was a time when switch blades were available. Now it’s drugs. The kids in this country are very screwed up,” Sexton points out. “A zip gun or a set of works — the alternative to gangs is drugs.”
How did the latest currency of hip become so available?
“How does money come into the economy?”
Jan’s urge for kicks was worked out harmlessly enough at first. “I was playing stoop ball all the time.”
And when things really got dull he and his friends would find an evening’s entertainment in stealing chairs from factories on Seventh Avenue. Why chairs?
“It wasn’t the chairs we were after, but the excitement. Climbing over roofs and up and down fire escapes in the dark. Sometimes we’d sell the chairs to a couple of fags. They’d give us a dime or a quarter a chair, and we’d tie ropes around them and they’d haul them up through their window. They might have refinished and sold them. Or maybe they were just trying to lure us up to their apartment.”
It was Lynn, as they recall, who turned Jan on to drugs. The pastime that led to her initiation into the drug scene couldn’t have been more innocent — bicycle riding.
“When I was in high school I used to hang out with a bunch of kids at the 8th Street hostel. We used to ride our bikes or just hang around Washington Square Park — around the benches closest to the arch. That overlapped with the area where the people on drugs hung out. I was bored and looking for people to talk to. They were older and attractive. First I’d just listen to them. Then I’d sit around talking to these people and watching them — all goofing around and talking in this funny way.”
“Yeah,” Jan broke in, laughing at the recollection. “You’d see them high and it looked very good — their running around and falling down and laughing and philosophizing about the stars. And you’d say to yourself, ‘I’d like to talk like that,’ or ‘Gee, what are they high on tonight?’ They seemed like very important people then and we thought they were leading a very exciting life — narrow escapes from the cops, falling down all the time, what a great thing.'”
In 1963 Lynn began turning on with benzedrine and dexedrine. It was very convenient. You could do it during school, after school, on weekends.
“We used to buy a roll of bennies and go into the Night Owl — when the Night Owl was Art Ford’s coffee shop it was one of the places you could turn on in the Village. We’d spread the pills out on the table, divide them up, buy a coke, and drop five or six. You could turn on anyplace in the Village that didn’t have locks on the bathroom doors.”
What about the police?
“You never expected to get in trouble with the cops,” Lynn explained, “because the cops never did anything, or if they did you got out of it. That was never any threat.”
What about liquor?
“Oh, we’d drink, too,” Jan replied. “Mostly wine. Anything that would get us high.”
Like those kids who walk around now with pint bottles in paper bags?
“We didn’t bother about the paper bags.”
“There was a place on Houston Street,” Lynn remembered, “where we used to go — around dusk — and have chug-a-lug contests.”
“That all seemed very grown up, but it wasn’t,” Brendan interrupted, dousing the reminiscences with a little reality. “It was childish. It denied every principle of growing up — no responsibilities, no plans for the future, no relationships. It was empty and phony. You can pretend to be anything and no one will stop you.”
What about parents?
“All our parents are divorced.”
“Every friend I have in the Village, their parents are divorced,” Lynn added, then going back to her husband’s point about the phoniness of the teenage drug world.
“I was a phony and I knew it. I was going with a guy and we were always turning on. I knew this was a very meaningless relationship, but finding that out didn’t help because after I broke up with him I met a guy who had just come back from Tangier with a fantastic amount of pot and hashish. I’d get up at three in the morning and tell my mother I was going out to ride my bike — she would be half asleep and wouldn’t know what time it was. I’d ride my bike down to his apartment and smoke until six. Then I’d go home, change, and go uptown to school — I went to Music and Art…I rarely paid for drugs. There was a lot of sharing. If someone had a pound of pot you could have some. By the way, I’m sure they think they’re very open and give of themselves.”
“That’s generosity, man — giving your pot!” Brendan agreed, laughing. Their attitude toward their old life and the people who still live it is a mixture of amused contempt and disgust. There is also compassion, but it is pragmatic rather than sentimental. They’re not interested in feeling sorry for their friends who are still hooked. They’re interested in getting them off the hook, using their own experience as a guideline.
They consider themselves lucky. They all managed to graduate from high school with good grades despite their chronic truancy. (All three of them are now in college: Brendan at NYU, Lynn at Cooper Union, and Jan at City.) They didn’t worry about being kicked out of school or put in jail. They had that one figured out. As Brendan put it, there was nothing the authorities could do. “After all, why turn a truant into a criminal?”
Brendan first went to the University of Wisconsin and dropped out after a bad first semester. “After that I degenerated in Madison for a couple of months and then I came home and degenerated some more.” But he managed to snap out of it sufficiently to go to Louisiana that summer to work for CORE. He worked on voter registration in Plaquemine, a little known spot which achieved international recognition through its white citizens’ dexterity with cattle prods. Brendan did well enough to be one of 14 summer volunteers that CORE accepted as permanent staff members.
Clean for Months
“That was one of the best periods of my life. I stayed five and a half months and I was clean the whole time, except for pot. I was arrested four times down there. One day in jail I realized that this was one of the greatest things I’d ever done in my life and I was still falling apart. I couldn’t talk to a girl on anything but a phony basis. I couldn’t stand myself, I was fed up. It was a healthy couple of moments. Anyway, I decided that I needed group therapy, so when I went home for Christmas I stayed, principally for the therapy.
“Strangely enough, that’s when I really got involved in drugs and started on heroin and doing things like stealing and swindling. I’d see a guy on MacDougal Street and I’d tell him I could get him some heroin. Then I’d take him over to the Albert Hotel and up to the sixth floor. I’d tell him to give me the money and wait for me there. Then I’d disappear through a door, go down a back way, and get out on the street while he was still waiting for me upstairs. And people on drugs are so impotent, even if the guy would see me later and ask me what happened I’d just tell him, ‘Aw, leave me alone, man.’ And he would.”
“They’re so ineffectual,” Jan added, “I once took some amphetamine away from a guy on crutches, with all his friends standing around. They didn’t do a thing.”
Afraid of Sex
As for sex, there was unanimous agreement: “Most kids in the Village are as afraid of sex as a wild bull.”
“There have always been some people in the Village making some kind of sex scene,” Brendan conceded. “There’s some hustling, and some girls get involved with some way-out sex scene and fool around with it for a while. But they don’t really have fun. It’s just one more kind of degradation for them. I went to a couple of so-called orgies and they were nothing — I mean nothing! Everybody went into the bathroom and got high.”
Brendan, Lynn, and Jan, with the help of a Synanon type of group therapy, managed to make it off MacDougal Street after only a few years. Now they want to go back, but this time with a different purpose. They want to set up their own rescue operation, to get a building or a coffee house or an apartment on MacDougal Street where they can conduct therapy sessions, have guitars available, hold lectures and seminars. In short, they want to offer the kids who are still on MacDougal Street an alternative. Their experience taught them that the great attraction of drugs at first is not their effect, but the fact that it is hip to take them. “You spend more time talking about getting money for it, preparing for it, than actually doing it. When you first take drugs it’s not an escape, it’s excitement, but after you start taking them you keep on to escape from not taking them. Once you’re on them you can’t stand the boredom of not being on them.” The only way to combat drugs, therefore, is to re-define hip.
“There are two tools that can accomplish this,” Brendan told a recent community meeting on the drug problem held at the Village Peace Center. “You can offer them something hipper to do, and you can ridicule them for what they’re doing.”
The three of them feel that among them they know enough kids still on MacDougal Street to make a dent. They’re convinced that just by walking down the street and saying to guys they know: “Why aren’t you playing guitar like you say you want to?” or “Why aren’t you making that girl you like?” they can each convince ten kids a night to at least try to straighten out.
“The way it is now,” Brendan maintains, “almost no one on MacDougal Street has any fun; it’s just a question of not doing what you were doing…. We’ve done what they’re doing now and we could show them that there are hipper things to do, and if you can find out how to do them, well, you’d just rather…. But,” he says, any alternative set-up would have to be on MacDougal Street, “so they can see it, and because MacDougal Street is incredibly exciting if you’re in that kind of mood.”
But what about the local residents who are interested in precisely the opposite — i.e., moving the scene off MacDougal Street?
“If there are people in the Village who are reasonably mature and responsible, we think we might be able to change it from an open-street night club and give it a constructive atmosphere.”
As of now, they are trying to raise funds for their project — from, among other sources, the city’s Youth Board. Which is not so far-fetched, since at this point their approach is more imaginative than anything the city has come up with.
“STEPHANIE HARRINGTON WAS A TERRIFIC LADY who took real interest in young people, so that was flattering,” Brendan Sexton says by phone from his home in Greenwich Village. “Of course, if you’ve ever been written about, you find things that you would have done differently — the term ‘former hopheads’ was certainly not ours; I guess it was Stephanie’s attempt to distinguish from the idea of an ex-addict or an addict.”
Sexton and his colleagues at the nascent Encounter felt drugs weren’t at the root of their problems. “We knew we weren’t junkies, but we knew we were flailing about in our attempts to grow up, or avoid growing up,” he says. “And what we had was each other — that’s really all we had.”
They’d experienced loss at an early age. He, Lynn, and Jan Stacy were all children of divorce. And “all of us, by the time we were twenty, knew kids who had died, kids who were in prison. Including, among them, our best friends. By then there was enough crystal meth around that all of us knew at least a couple of kids who were highly wacked on speed. And of course we also knew some kids who were getting along well — we never claimed that was impossible, but it wasn’t true of us. We had, obviously, struggled.”
Some were dying and didn’t know it. Stacy, Sexton discloses, died of AIDS, as did Lynn’s second husband. Sexton himself would learn years later that he had contracted hepatitis B and C thanks to shared needles.
“In those days the dangers of IV drug use were considered chiefly OD or arrest,” Sexton says. “It seems so obvious now — anything in your bloodstream you can spread by sticking a needle in your arm. We were stupid. We were kids.”
As for Encounter, “It had a very nice life for about ten years,” before falling into financial and organizational disarray.
“It was a little bit like a communal society,” Sexton recounts. “Some survive, some survive in a sort of degenerated form, becoming tyrannical or corrupt — Encounter’s community didn’t do anything that dramatic. I won’t say it ended bitterly. Not with a bang but with a whimper.
“Don’t forget, we were going from late adolescence or very early adulthood to actually having a life,” he adds. “Lynn and I got married, we had some kids — these sorts of things were happening.”
By that time Sexton had moved on from Encounter. He enrolled in grad school at Columbia to study the efficacy of treatment programs and prevention programs. Not long afterward, enticed by his experience in the field, the city hired him away. “There was some research, but it was dreadful,” he explains, “so they hired a couple young people like myself to try to see if they could figure out what was working.”
And a life in public service was born.
SEXTON SAYS HIS CAREER PATH was something of a fluke, brought on by New York City’s mammoth financial crisis.
“Because of the fiscal crisis, I was invited to do work which was like the work I’d done in Addiction — it was evaluating public programs. Of course, by then it was evaluating programs to see what should be kept and what shouldn’t be. I wound up working for the mayor’s office indirectly, and the Mayor’s Office of Operations, and then I got that job as my own, running that office.”
Then came Sanitation. “I loved that job,” he says. “Sanitation was probably the most fun I ever had working.”
Some of that fun was furnished the stickier-than sticky stickers that for many years department workers affixed to the windshields of illegally parked cars.
“One of my proudest inventions!” Sexton exclaims of the practice of shaming New Yorkers decades before the term became popular. “I loved them. And they worked, by the way! Because the city had Project Scorecard, which measured litter penetration and dirt, and how dirty or clean the streets were, you could see the same neighborhoods before and after — in fact, route by route, you could examine particular neighborhoods before and after using those stickers. I’m not saying you could eat your peanut-butter sandwich off the street, but you could see a few points’ change in Project Scorecard. So I was very proud of that. ”
If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible for a public servant to express unalloyed glee, you now have your answer. And how are the streets now, three years after the city finally abolished the stickers?
“They’re actually in pretty good shape. We’ve definitely had periods of much better and much worse,” Sexton says. “But you have to remember, we started this during the fiscal crisis, when this was Stinky City. I mean, the sanitation situation was horrible. Slowly but surely the city has become a cleaner place. I have to think right now things are not as clean as they had been at their peak of cleanliness, but it’s certainly a different frame of reference from when we started measuring cleanliness — which we started to measure because it was so horrible, and someone had to figure out the best place to deploy the troops.”
At the time, Sexton lived on Staten Island — another focal point at the Department of Sanitation, owing to the colossally smelly landfill at Fresh Kills. “It was probably the single-largest generator of complaints to city government in all of our activities. And it was my neighbors complaining,” he says.
Today the site is being reclaimed acre by acre as a public park. Sexton serves on the board of the nonprofit Freshkills Park Alliance, working toward that goal in concert with city and state agencies. “It’s a magnificent location,” he says. “People would never believe that. It’s about 2,500 acres, and about a thousand of them were never touched — they’re just the original wetlands that had been targeted by Robert Moses to be landfill. Now there are a few hundred acres that have been reclaimed. There are deer there now. It’s pretty cool. You know, it takes 30 to 50 years for a landfill to die, really.” (According to the alliance’s website, the four mounds at Fresh Kills contain about 150 million tons of solid waste.)
Sexton has relocated to the Village, to a house that belonged to his father (who lives on Staten Island). “My daughter and her daughter are here. My granddaughter is the fourth generation of Sextons to live on Sullivan Street,” he says. “We qualify as Villagers, I would guess.”
One of his sons, Brendan Sexton III, was born on Staten Island but has since decamped to Belair. “He makes the occasional movie and the more frequent TV show,” Sexton reports, “and struggles like crazy with it. But he pays his rent. He’s a grown man who supports himself with his craft. A very courageous way to live. And he hasn’t been crushed by it yet.”
WHAT DOES SEXTON THINK of the Village now? “Well, of course it’s being eaten by gentrification — the country is being eaten by gentrification. “As the rich, and the brokers to the rich, and the agents of the rich discover these corners of urban living, they’re becoming…the Upper West Side. Which is a wonderful neighborhood, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a cheap place to live any more. And the Village has long since been, as you know.
“I was so lucky to have been a teenager in the Village when, you know, Richie Havens was playing in a coffeehouse down the block, and John Sebastian. And this was a very exciting era and a very cheap era, and I was just incredibly — all of us were, the group in that article — lucky to be walking these streets then.
“I don’t want to be one of these people who is stuck in the past and who can’t see the value in the new. I see a lot of value in what is new. I don’t happen to see value in losing the quirk of the city that creates our artists and musicians and suchlike. Williamsburg was that and is losing it the way the Village is losing it. Spanish Harlem, a few other places that were cherished because they were cheap and also culturally alive at the same time. And that’s pretty hard to maintain unless you’re prepared to impoverish a whole city in order to do it.
“I imagine that people who are in Detroit right now will be saying this in 25 years: ‘I remember when six of us could rent a whole ten-room house for $150 each.’ My first apartment in the Village was at 8th Street and Avenue D and it was $25 a month! Eighteen years old and I could get an apartment. And by the way, it was appropriately priced.
“It’s impossible to not regret the loss of that, but it’s also incorrect to stay stuck in the past and not figure out what the next phase is going to be.”
Follow Tom Finkel on Twitter @t_fin
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 11, 2015