From the Annals of Pre-Gentrification
All the popcorn pimps, penny-ante pross, nickel-and-dime pill-pushers, methadone junkies, and doorway-living winos felt the hawk wind as it blew down East 14th Street. It’s late October, the time of the year when one night, all of a sudden, you know you better break out the warmer coat. Except that on East 14th Street, who has a warmer coat? One creep — a downer-selling vermin — knows the raw of it all. He stands in front of the pizza joint on 14th and Third Avenue, begging for eye contact. “Robitussin, man, Robitussin.” Robitussin? Two dollar Placidyl is low enough — that shit’ll make your breath smell like metal. But Robitussin? “Robitussin, man. You have got to be kidding.”
The creep’s voice squeaks up a couple of octaves, his scarred-up head sags. He says, “Just trying to get over. This gonna be a rough winter.”
Shitsure it’s gonna be a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. It’s always a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. Rough for the blond junkie and his girlfriend. They told the people at the methadone center on Second Avenue and 12th Street that they were going out of town. Back to Ohio to visit the chick’s parents. The methadone people gave them a week’s supply of bottles. Good plan: the blond guy and his girlfriend weren’t going nowhere except to 14th Street to sell the extra shit. But they got into a pushing match with some of the Spanish guys drinking Night Train Express on the subway stairs. The methadone bottles fell down the stairs. The shit got out. What a bitch.
Rough winter, too, for the big black cross working the entrance of the Contempora Apartments on Third Avenue. Checking her, you’d figure she could open a 14th Street branch of the Fresh Air Fund. Tits for days. But, then again, if you’re looking for scrubbed Tahitian babes in redwood tubs, 14th Street is not the place. The other day, though, it got embarrassing for the big black pross. A Chevy filled with beer-drinkers rolled slow by her doorway. She said, “Wanna go out?” It was sincere bargaining in good faith — “Wanna go out?” But the Chevy was deadbeat. The driver yelled out the window, “Yeah, how much you want to pay me, pig?” Some joke. Whip a pross, stick her with sewing-machine needles, step on her face, but don’t call her a pig. The pross took out the after the Chevy, breasts lurching north and south, ass bumping east and west. The Chevy was stopped at the light. The big black pross slammed her pocketbook against the windshield. Mascara pads and fake eyelashes flew. “Motherfucker,” screamed the big black pross, “why you come down here and try to make fun of me?” The Chevy rolled up the windows and sped away, laughing.
Rough winter, dead rough winter. So rough some have already taken off. Nobody in the Durkin, the creep joint with the tilted bar, has seen Joey the Eye for a while. Joey the Eye was messed up — too fucked up to cop pills, never had a girl out on the street. But he could — and would — take his bloodshot eyeball out of his head and hold it in the palm of his hand. The Hung Man is also missing. He spent some of the summer leaning on a parking meter, stark naked. Valium pushers came over, slapped five, and said. “Man, you hung.”
Beat Shit Green is gone, too. But no one in the pill-pusher ginmills on 2nd Avenue figures Beat Shit is soaking up rays in Miami Beach. Beat Shit is one of the worst scumbags ever to stand at 14th Street and Third Avenue hustling “Ts and Vs” (Tuinals and Valium). He used to claim that he was the one who sold the white boy that fatal bunch of beat shit in Washington Square Park last year. The white boy didn’t dig getting burned and came back with friends and baseball bats. People got bruised. One died. Back on 14th Street Beat Shit bragged. He is the kind of pill-pusher who doesn’t give a shit if you take one of his tuies that isn’t even a tuie and go into convulsion right at his feet. Damn, he made his $2.50. Beat Shit has been known to sell methadone that was really Kool-Aid and aspirin. He’d suck the juice out of a Placidyl and sell the shell. But, they say, that kind of beat shit comes back on you. They say Beat Shit’s not going to make the winter because he got thrown off a roof on East 13th Street.
Rough. Cold. In one of the bars next to the cuchifrito stand, Willie (“call me Big W”) is wondering if he’ll see April. For a downer salesman, Willie is a pretty sweet dude. Sometimes if one of the barmaids in the Durkin is smooching it up with an off-duty cop, Willie will take a bar stool next to the chick and wait. Soon she’ll curl her hand around her back and make a little cup. Willie will slip her a couple of Valiums. The barmaid will put her other hand in the cop’s crotch and pull her face away — pretending to cough or something. While the cop is dealing with the barmaid’s squeeze, she’ll swallow the pills and go back to tonguing before the guy knows anything. Willie digs that kind of move. He says, “She’s slick, huh?”
Recently, though, things haven’t been going too good for Big W. He makes a little bread selling his shit to kids from Jersey on 14th Street — enough to keep a room in an SRO hotel uptown. But, like they say, Willie is his own best customer. Talking to him gets you seasick; he’s always listing from side to side. Tonight Big W is wearing his skullcap funny. It’s not pulled down over his head; he’s got it done up in a little crown. Willie says he don’t want it skintight, it puts too much pressure on his stitches. Seems as Willie was in the Durkin a couple of weeks ago and got into an argument with a pimp. Willie thought the guy was just bullshitting until the iron rod came out. Willie forgets what happened next. Except that he woke up in Bellevue with a head that looks like a roadmap.
Stitches get Willie mad. Mad enough to “get violent.” The other night, Wille kept looking at those stitches in the mirror so long he decided he was “just gonna go mug myself somebody.” He went around to the stage door of the Palladium and picked out a kid who was completely destroyed on Tuinals. The kid was waiting for an autograph. Willie figured anyone jive enough a wait for a fucking autograph has to be an asshole. It got better when the rock star came out the door, “got into his fucking limo, and didn’t even give the sucker an autograph.” So Willie made his move. The Jersey kid beat Willie into the sidewalk and “stole my Placidyls.” At this rate, Willie figures he’ll be lucky to live till spring.
You wouldn’t predict better for Leroy and Sally. They’re sweethearts. Leroy, a good-looking mother with a brown hat, used to push pills but he got behind them. Half a dozen Placidyls a day. Bad news. So he hooked up with Sally. Now she’s on the street and he’s home with the housekeeping. It’s worked out good, too. They got a place without roaches on 13th Street in a building with a locked door. Sally had some chairs and a blue light bulb. Leroy slipped the super some to tell the landlord the dead Polish lady hadn’t moved yet, so the rent is dirt cheap.
But then Sally started taking busts. Every Friday night the cops’ pussy posse would pull her in. She changed corners, went over to 12th Street. Nothing worked. Sally always got the toughest judge. The fines mounted up. Leroy and Sally started arguing. Sally got uptight and started crying. Sometimes she cried for no reason. Leroy told her to shut it up. He said she was an ugly bitch with a fucking pinhead bobbing on the top of goddamned two-foot long neck. Sally cried some more.
A couple of weeks ago she was crying in the laundromat the Chinese guys run on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. Leroy whacked Sally with a clenched fist. He never hit her with a clenched fist before. When the Chinese guy who folds the towels said something, Leroy screamed, “Shut up, motherfucker.” Then he went over the dryer and pulled out all his underwear. He told Sally it was over and was gone.
He was lying. A few days later Leroy and Sally were back together. They were in a bodega on 3rd Avenue, screaming at the Spanish guy behind the counter. The guy was claiming Sally stole a bag of Planter’s peanuts. Sally said, ”You cocksucker, spic. Fucking cocksucker, spic. We don’t need your fucking peanuts, spic. I got a fucking hundred dollars in my fucking pocket, spic. So take you fucking peanuts and shove them up your ass.”
The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York
I have always wanted to write a story called “The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York.” Once, while I was working for New York Magazine, I suggested this idea to my then boss, Clay Felker. The story would be an enormous asset, I said. Diplomatically I pointed out that the magazine seemed to spend inordinate time and space deciphering and celebrating the city’s high life. Why not devote equal time to the city’s low life? Certainly, New York is as much about its sleazoids as its swells. Here, I bargained, was a fabulous opportunity to do some truly meaningful city reporting. More than reporting. This would be a major breakthrough for the publication; it would be city anthropology — no, city sleazology, I called it, coining a perfect cover line. I mean, why did certain street corners — excluding obvious “ghetto” area ones — become hangouts for pill-pushers, prostitutes, winos, bums, creeps, cripples, mental patients, mumblers, flimflam men, plastic flower sellers, peepshow orators. head-cases, panhandlers, and other socially unacceptable netherworld types. How did these corners get this way? How long had they been this way? What was their future? Which ones have McDonalds? Which ones have Burger King? Did this matter?
I submitted a fairly comprehensive list off the top of my head: 96th Street and Broadway — the first subway stop down from Harlem; 72nd Street and Broadway — good old needle park; 53rd and Third — the Ramones sang about ‘hawking there; 28th and Park Avenue South — the Bellmore brings the pross; 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s — the dregs of the burned-out hippies; Bowery and Houston — the creme of the classic bum corner; 6th Avenue and 8th Street — the aggressively plastic up-and-comer; 90th Street and Roosevelt in Queens — home of the low-level Colombian coke dealer; 14th and Third; and, of course, the granddaddy: The 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue-42nd Street and Eighth Avenue complex.
To me, it was a brilliant idea. Even the title was perfect for New York. I was prepared, however — if pressured — to add the word “hot” to the headline. Felker listened to this rap with ever-widening and horrified eyes. Then he looked at me like I was a bug and told me to get cracking on Barry Manilow.
Still, the sleaze story festered in my brain. But ambition wanes. It soon became apparent that it was crazy to “do” all the corners of crud in New York. How many burgers can one be called on to eat for the sake of journalism? It would be better to hone in on one singular slice of sleaze.
Fourteenth Street and 3rd Avenue was the natural choice. I live around there; it’s my neighborhood sleazy street corner. The pross have seen me enough to know I don’t wanna go out. But, also, 14th Street and Third Avenue is a classic, time-honored choice. 14th Street — the longest crosstown Street in Manhattan — has been on the skids, for the past 120 years.
Once, long ago, blue blood ran through this stem. An 1853 edition of the New York Herald said of East 14th Street, “Here, there are no stores — nothing but dwelling houses, which are substantial, highly finished, and first class.” When stores did come, they were Tiffany’s and FAO Schwarz. When the Academy of Music was built, in 1854, it was hailed as the city’s center of classical music and opera. Europeans sang there. The Metropolitan Opera House was built uptown by smarmy nouveaux riches, like the Vanderbilts, who couldn’t get boxes at the Academy.
It didn’t last long. East 14th Street did one of the quickest and earliest “there goes the neighborhoods” in New York history. By 1865, the New York Times was reporting that “all of the once-splendid row houses of the 14th Street-Union Square sector are now boarding houses.” Even more august sources scorned the street: In 1868, Charles Dickens saw 14th Street as a precursor of Levittown. He said: “There are 300 boarding houses exactly alike, with 300 young men exactly alike, sleeping in 300 hall bedrooms exactly alike, with 300 dress suits exactly alike ….”
Never trust a Brit snob’s sum-up of America. 14th Street got seamier, but it was cooking. Prostitution was firmly rooted on East 14th Street by the turn of the century (a Gentleman’s Companion of the time lists 15 whorehouses in the area), and it aided some unlikely causes. Emma Goldman writes of doing a little flat-backing on 14th Street to pick up revolutionary pocket money. Those days, there were plenty of Reds around. Socialists and worse stood on soapboxes in Union Square Park. Once, during the Sacco-Vanzetti trials, the cops mounted machine guns on top of the Guardian Life building. John Reed and Trotsky discussed eventualities in the 14th Street cafeteria, which had a sign on the wall: A TRAYFUL FOR A TRIFLE.
Capitalists did not lie down in the face of such impressive lefties. D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio, where Lilly and Dolly Gish graced one-reelers, was on East 14th Street. Buster Keaton made shorts here. Old-rag salesmen and handlers made shop on 14th Street. Many of the schlockmeisters who made it big — and some who didn’t make it so big — started on 14th Street. Macy’s, Hearn’s. Ohrbach’s, and Klein’s were here.
Today the only vestige of leftist activity on 14th Street is the sign from the ’60s underground newspaper Rat, which had its offices next to the Metropolitan porno theater. It reads, “HOT RATS WHILE YOU WAIT.” The capitalists didn’t fade, they moved out. Only Klein’s, with nowhere to go, held on. The trade from Stuyvesant Town in the east couldn’t sustain it. There was no future in selling to Puerto Ricans. Three years ago it closed. Now the massive “Klein’s on The Square” is an empty 300,000-foot hulk. The square-rule logo makes the place look like a decrepit Masonic Temple; except there’s no “all-seeing eye.”
The East Village Other, in one of its last issues, published a secret report predicting a deadly and monumental earthquake about to flatten half the city. The scientists, (all Hitlerians, said EVO) were keeping the news from the public. The report said all the major fault lines ran right underneath 14th Street. It was a totally believable story.
East 14th Street should have settled into a typical cycle of urban decline and upshift. Sure, the area has its share of pross and winos in Union Square Park and on the line to go to the bathroom at the Variety Photoplays. But that wouldn’t have bothered the loft people or the apartment renovators. It didn’t happen, though. The sleazos came instead. And East 14th Street continued to go down … down … down. In fact, after a 120-year skid, it hasn’t bottomed out yet.
14th Street at Third Avenue is more than a sleazy street corner, it’s the epicenter of a mini-sleazopolis. In the blocks around the hub, several different creep scenes operate side by side, and almost independently. Occasionally a pimp hanging out in the Rio Piedras bodega, on Third Avenue near 11th Street, will go up to 14th Street to sell some pills, but not often. The girls stay fucked up most of the time but don’t sell. Pill-pushers don’t even go to the same bars as the pross. It’s a real division of labor. The thing that holds it all together is that it’s all so low. Low! Ask the Robitussin man, or the big black cross, or the methadone tripper, or Willie — they’ll tell you: After 14th Street, there ain’t no more down.
The pimps ain’t happening. They sit on the steps of the barber college at Third and 12th, talking big and pretending to be Mexican hacienda patroons. Fake, all fake. These pimps aren’t taking no territory from King George, no way. These pimps never even get to lean against an El D, much less have a fur hat. They’re lucky to have one girl working. And the pross ain’t making bread. They’re turning $200 a week when it’s good. No chance of them taking their act Lexington or even Eighth Avenue. They’re on 14th Street because the big pimps think the place is so funky they don’t even care to organize it. Creeps say 14th is one step from the glue factory. Shit, a few months ago the cops picked up a 53-year-old pross by the Contempora Apartments.
Pill-pushers are no better. Most of them started turning up on 14th Street back in the late ’60s after two doctors, Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswarder — the father and mother of methadone maintenance — shook up the dope-fiend world by setting up a clinic at the Morris J. Bernstein Institute of Beth Israel Hospital. Methadone was touted as a wonder drug. Everyone said it would be the end of the heroin problem in the city. Junkies from all over the city were sent over to Bernstein (on Second Avenue and 17th Street) and other nearby “model” clinics to drink little clear bottles and kick.
Some kicked. But most just got a short course in how to manipulate the Medicaid programs politicians loved to pour money into. Drugs led to drugs. It was easy to take your little methadone card and Medicaid slip over to a “scrip” doctor who would be willing to write you an Rx for a 100 Valiums if you told him you were “anxious.” Otherwise, you could write your own scrip. The forms were usually lying around the program offices. Anyone who could write more than “X” could get a pharmacist to fill the scrips. What you didn’t use to get fucked up on, you could sell. Same thing with extra methadone.
14th Street and Third became the flea market. It was an Eco-101 example of supply and demand. The drug of choice among the dumbo suburban kids these days is downers. And that’s what the 14th Street pillboys sell. Throughout Long Island and Jersey blond-haired types driving their papas’ Le Sabres know 14th Street is the place to go. Any night a useless boogie band is playing the Palladium (what they call the Academy of Music now), you can see the most mediocre minds of the next generation go into the toilet.
Everyone knows it. Go over to the emergency room at one of the hospitals in the area, tell them you’re dying from a headache and want some Percodan. The intern there will be surprised and ask you, “Sure you don’t want Valium?” Insist on Percodan and the intern will tell you, “Take the Valium. If you don’t use them, sell them on 14th Street.” There’s no night (except for Sunday, when the Street is eerie and dead) when you can’t walk from Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue on 14th Street without at least half a dozen ball-cap-wearing spades and pinpoint-eyed junkies asking you if you want downers. Placidyls for $2.50; Valium, 75 cents; Tuinal, $3; Elavil, $2 on 14th Street (prices somewhat higher on weekends when the Paladium is working). You’d figure that would add up. Especially since Medicaid pays. No overhead. But these guys ain’t got no money. They’re too spaced out. That’s why they’re on 14th to begin with. They couldn’t get over selling smack on 123rd Street. They couldn’t even get over selling smack on Avenue B and 6th Street. They don’t got the concentration. No big “pusher wars” here. These guys couldn’t tell friend from enemy. They are in trouble if you ask them for more than three Valiums. They pour the pills out into their hands and start counting. And keep counting.
If you want to draw a map of the 14th-and-Third sleazopolis, give the pill-pushers 14th Street between Second and Fourth. But they’re never, for some reason, on the north side of the street. Scoring spots include the doorway of the Larry Richardson Dance Company and the corner of Fourth Avenue. Most of the guys up there are in business for themselves but there are also “steerers,” creeps who will tell Jersey kids to come around the corner to 13th Street. This is usually for “quantity” and sometimes for rip-off.
The rest of the scene, working from the west and down, goes like this: Union Square Park is bonkers these days, the sight of curving benches packed with saliva-streaked and leathery faces is truly impressive. The park isn’t a major retail center for the pill-pusher, but many will come over for a little rural R and R. After a tough day of Placidyl pushing, you can lose it back playing craps or three-card monte. There are also several “loose joints” guys who got off the wrong subway stop on the way down to Washington Square. Some smack here, too.
The pross take Third Avenue. Their spiritual home is near 14th Street, where there are two miserable excuses for peepshow joints as well as three porno theatres (that includes the Variety when it’s not showing devil movies). But the ‘toots will graze down to 5th Street. They are careful, however, not to mess with the turf of the pross operating out of the Delancy-Bowery area. The Regina Hotel on Third and 13th (a featured backdrop in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) is no longer a big pross hole. The cops broke the manager’s balls so now he plays it cool. Most of the hotel tricking goes on at the Sahara, a little oasis on 14th. The Sahara has a sign saying LOW WEEKLY RATES even though most guests spend less than a half hour at the Sahara. Seven dollars is the room tariff. But this isn’t a hotel scene. It’s all $20 blow-jobs and wack-offs in the hallway down where the super keeps the trash cans. Or in the cars in one of the parking lots along Third Avenue. The West Indian guy who used to work there charged $2 for use of the cars. Hope they didn’t use yours.
The “he-shes” (also called “shims” or “he-haws”) hang near Second Avenue and 12th Street, and also congregate at Little Peters, a swish bar by St. Marks Place. This is one of the biggest t.v. scenes in the city. Of the 1400 pross arrests the cops made in the area during the past year or so, nearly half were men dressed up as women. Ask why he-shes are usually Puerto Rican and a “he-haw” says, “our people are so mean to us … besides, haven’t you ever heard that Latins were made to love?” The he-shes are much classier looking than the straight pross. Johns claim you can’t even tell until you get real close. And, even then … you can’t. But, then again, most of the johns who cruise 14th Street just don’t care.
With this kind of scene in the streets it makes sense that many of the “legitimate” businesses that have stayed on East 14th Street during the downtimes fall into the seedy category in most Upper East Siders’ book. Up the stairs at the Gramercy Gym, where Cus D’amato trained Patterson and Jose Torres, the fighters don’t think too much about the sleazos below. Fighters figure they’re on the fringe of the law themselves. They don’t point fingers. They know Placidyls make it tough to run six miles in the morning, so they don’t play that shit and let it be.
At Jullian’s Billiards, one of the great film-noir light-over-the-faded-green-cloth-Luther-Lassiter-played-here pool halls in New York, hardly anyone makes mention of the scene either. The old men who sit on the wood benches, watching the nine-ball games, don’t have time to think about creeps; this is a game of hard planning; you’ve got to know what’s coming five shots ahead. So just shoot pool. Who cares who pisses in the hallway?
Paula Klaw has her private thoughts. She’s been on East 14th Street for better than 30 years. She remembers when the cuchifrito stand was a Rikers. And when there were two Hungarian restaurants on this block. She is not, however, complaining. “Who am I to complain?” says Paula Klaw. Paula Klaw runs Movie Star News, a film-still and “nostalgia” store stuffed into the second floor of the building next to the Jefferson Theatre. It’s the best place to get photos of Clive Brook. But from the street its hard to tell if Paula Klaw is open. The window, which says, IRVING KLAW, THE PINUP KING is covered with soot. The window is left over from the days when Paula’s brother Irving ran the place. Those days the Klaws were more famous for bondage pictures than portraits of Gary Cooper. Paula and Irving Klaw were the bondage kings of New York. Together they took more than 4000 different pictures of ladies in satin bras and panties in the apartment above Movie Star News. Paula was in charge of posing the pictures. She tied ladies to chairs, hung them from clotheslines, gagged them on beds, and manacled them with leather. The pictures had titles like “Betty Comes to New York and Gets in a Bind.”
“It was wonderful those days,” Paula says now, “we had politicians, judges, prime ministers coming here to buy our photos. They would park their limos right outside on 14th Street.” After a while, however, Irving got busted for sending the stuff through the mails. Lengthy court cases ensued. Fighting back a tear Paula says, “it was all that that killed Irving, I think. They said we sold porno. We did not sell porno.” Today Paula sells a book called The Irving Klaw Years 1948-1963 containing “more than 200 out-of-print bondage photos.” Paula calls it a “fitting remembrance to my brother.” Paula has white hair, blue makeup, and wears Capri pants, doesn’t have to come to 14th Street every day. She lives in Sheepshead Bay and “has plenty of money.” But she “just likes it … you know, this used to be quite a glamorous street.” She says she hasn’t washed the IRVING KLAW, PINUP KING window in 20 years. She does not intend to.
If Paula, Jullian’s, and the fighters add aged seed to the surroundings it’s the cynical “businessmen” who give 14th Street and Third Avenue its shiny veneer of plastic sleaze. Who could have been surprised when Burger King opened in the old Automat where the man who’s buried next to Lenin once ate club rolls? America’s Burger King knows its customers when it sees them. The burger boys probably have whole demographic departments to psyche out every sleaze scene in the galaxy. No doubt they felt they had to keep pace after McDonald’s sewed up 96th and Broadway. “Then there are the donuts. There are at least five donut joints in the immediate area of 14th Street and Third Avenue. One even replaced Sam’s Pizza, a lowlife landmark for years. Donuts are definitely the carbo-junkie wave of the future. In fact, if some doctor would publish a weight-losing diet of Placidyls and donuts, airline stewardesses would make 14th Street another Club Med.
But, of course, the real merchants of 14th Street and Third Avenue are the sleazos. They control the economy. And why not? No one else wanted to sell stuff on East 14th Street. You have to figure that more Placidyls and pussy gets sold at 14th and Third than the pizza joint sells pizza or the cuchifrito place sells pork rinds. Or the boarded-up Jefferson Theatre sells tickets. No wonder the sleazos were pissed the other day. The Third Avenue Merchants Association was having a fair. They closed off the avenue. Ladies in print dresses sold pottery. Bug-eyed kids stood by tables of brownies. A nice day in the sun for the well adjusted. But the fair halted abruptly at 14th Street, even though Third Avenue continues downtown for several streets before it turns into the Bowery. The implication was clear, and the sleazos weren’t missing it. A whole slew of the local losers stood on “their” side of 14th Street, gaping at the fat-armed zeppoli men pulling dough and the little kids whizzing around in go-karts. One Valium pusher looked up at the sign hung across the avenue and read it aloud. “T … A … M … A … ,” he said. “What the fuck is a T.A.M.A.?”
The Third Avenue Merchants Association, he was informed. “Shit,” he said, looking very put out.
“Motherfucker, I’m a goddamned Third Avenue merchant.”
“The Livingest Street”
So what if 14th Street is low? The soul of the city boy looks into his heart of hearts and says, 14th Street is okay by me. Does every block have to look like SoHo or one of those tree-lined numbers in Queens that Catholics say they’re ready to die for? This is New York, isn’t it? Chalk it up to local color. The other night I was helping my friend move. He had been living on 15th Street and Third Avenue in a high-rise, but the money got tight. So he took a place on 12th between Second and Third. As we were carrying an enormous filing cabinet into the lobby of his new building, he said, “Well, this place is dumpy, but at least I won’t have to pass the prostitutes every day on the way to work.” A couple of seconds later we heard a noise on the staircase. A ‘toot was slapping a solid on a guy who we swore had a turned-around collar. We almost dropped the cabinet, laughing. Funny. After all, where else but on East 14th Street can you hear a blasted Spanish downer freak abusing a little Polish guy, saying, “Que pasa? Que pasa? Que pasa?” To which the Polish guy says, questioning, “Kielbasa? Kielbasa?”
And it’s not as if the street is like the South Bronx, with parch marks around broken windows and savage skulls in the street. Considering the amount of petty law-breaking that goes on in this area, the incidence of violent crime is small. The drug pushers got some mouth on them but are pretty docile at five feet. They won’t steal your television set. Medicaid pays for their drugs . The pross, too, are a model of whore decorum. Reports of mug-teams and wallet lifting are minimal.
Of course, there are those who do not ascribe to this type of thinking. Like Carvel Moore. Explaining why sleaze is essential to the big-city experience to her is like explaining it to Clay Felker. Except that Carvel Moore takes it more personally. She is the “project coordinator” of Sweet 14, an organization dedicated to making 14th Street “The Livingest Street in Town.”
They are a cleanup group. Ever since I saw the moral “uplifters” take the young couple’s baby in Intolerance and Mayor LaGuardia swing an axe into a pinball machine, I’ve been suspicious of “clean-up groups.” This group was no different. The list of names who attended their kickoff meeting at Luchow’s (the only good thing about Luchow’s is that the Nebraskans who eat there have to wade through degenerates to sop up that Restaurant Associates’ teutonic swill) read like a who’s who among New York powermongers. Charlie (Black-out) Luce, David Yunich, Mayor Beame, Percy Sutton, representatives of Citibank, the phone company, and Helmsley-Spear. They issued a joint statement saying 14th Street wasn’t dead, it could ”be turned around” and it was up to the businessmen and government to do it. Luce, the chairman of the group, offered $50,000 of Con Edison money each year for three years to this end.
Suspicion smelled a set-up. The high-rollers must be running scared. Con Ed and the phone company have their main offices on East 14th Street. Helmsley-Spear has major holdings in the area. Something had to be done about the sleazo effect on property values. Or maybe Luce just doesn’t like seeing creeps when he pulls up in his limo. Things got fishier when it was noticed that the Sweet 14 offices were on the eighth floor of the Con Ed building, right alongside the other “customer-service” rooms.
Carvel Moore, a prim lady who once headed a local planning board, said it was “dead wrong” to assume that Sweet 14 was a front group for Charles Luce, the phone company, or anyone else. Sweet 14 was an independent organization looking out for “everyone’s interests on East 14th Street.” She said that Luce’s $50,000 was “just a small portion of the money” the group had to work with. Then she brought out a bunch of art-student line drawings showing me how “incredibly inefficient” the 14th Street-Union Square subway station is. It is one of Sweet 14’s major tasks to “help remodel the station,” said Ms. Moore, pointing out how the station’s “awkwardness” made it difficult for employees to get to work. The project will cost $800,000.
She also was very high on “Sweet Sounds in Union Square Park,” a concert series sponsored by Sweet 14. Ms. Moore detailed how these musical events brought “working people on their lunch hour back into the park … and made the drunks and junkies feel uncomfortable.” Drunks and junkies always feel uncomfortable when “normal” people are around, Ms. Moore said.
The most important task of Sweet 14, however, continued Ms. Moore, was “to break up the vicious drug trade and prostitution on 14h Street near Third Avenue.” What kind of business, Ms. Moore wanted to know, would want to move to this area with things the way they are now? Sweet 14, said Ms. Moore, was now working closely with the cops to take “special action” on 14th Street. One of the main problems with local law enforcement, Ms. Moore said, is that the yellow line down 14th Street separates the jurisdictions of the Ninth and 13th Precincts. According to Ms. Moore some of the more nimble-footed degenerates in the area know this and escape cops who are loath to chase bad guys into another precinct. Sweet 14, however, has been “instrumental” in getting Captain Precioso of the Ninth Precinct to set up a “14th Street Task Force” to deal with this situation. The organization has also “been active” in monitoring the OTB office at the corner of Second Avenue and 14th Street. According to Ms. Moore, many people loiter in this office, making it a hangout for sleazos.
I wanted to tell Ms. Moore that I often make bets at the 14th Street OTB and then hang out there (admittedly not inhaling deeply), waiting to see how my nag ran. But I held it in. Instead, I wanted to know what, after Sweet 14 succeeded in making East 14th Street safe for businessmen, she suggested doing with the several thousand nether-creatures now populating the street? She indicated that was a “social problem” and not part of her job. All in all it was a somewhat depressing conversation. And I walked out feeling I would rather buy electricity from Beat Shit Green than a cleanup from Charles Luce.
More troubling was a talk I had with George and Susan Leelike. They are the co-heads of “East 13th Street Concerned Citizens Committee.” The very name of the group brings up images of whistle-blowing at the sight of a black person and badgering tenants to get up money to plant a tree. But George and Susan Leelike are a little tough to high-hat. After all, they are from the block. They’ve lived on East 13th Street for 15 years. Raised a son there. And they came for cool reasons: Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the East Village was hip. Charlie Mingus and Slugs made it hip. The Leelikes related to that.
So, when these people tell you they don’t think a pross and a priest in a hallway is funny, you’ve got to take them seriously. They do have a compelling case. George explains it all: He says the Lower East Side gets reamed because the neighborhood’s major industry is “service.” Any time a neighborhood is poor, “service” becomes a major industry. The Lower East Side is both poor and liberal. So, says George Leelike, it has a higher percentage of social work agencies than any other neighborhood in the city. He questions the validity of some of these projects, pointing out that one place, Project Contact, started in the ’60s as a teenage runaway home, then went to alcohol treatment, then to drug rehab, and now is back to runaways. This is “grant-chasing,” says Leelike. For the social workers to keep their jobs, the projects have to stay open. To stay open, they have to get grants. To get grants, they have to show they understand the “current” problems of the community and attract “clients.” George Leelike says there are more “clients” on the Lower East Side than any other place in the world.
“Clients,” the Leelikes say, are not the most stable neighbors. The worst are the methadone junkies. Beth Israel, says Leelike, has made “millions” from its methadone-maintenance programs that bring thousands of “clients” to the Lower East Side. So have the individual private doctors who run their own methadone clinics in the neighborhood. The Leelikes were a major force in a community drive that shut down one Dr. Triebel’s clinic on Second Avenue and 13th Street. Triebel pulled in more than $700,000 in one year, much of it in Medicaid payments.
This kind of activity brought still more sleazos to the neighborhood, the Leelikes said. They pulled out Xeroxed arrest reports from the Ninth and 13th precincts, showing that the majority of the pillpushers pinched on 14th Street said they were on some kind of methadone program. They said it was a vicious cycle, that many of the people on methadone had no desire or intention of kicking. Most of the local meth freaks were here on “force” programs. The city told them, sign up with a methadone clinic or no welfare.
These were frightening charges, not just because they were indisputably well-thought-out and apparently true. But because they went to the very core of the two most important issues in the city — race and class. Talking to George Leelike, you had to admire his rational approach to subjects that usually inspire mad, inflammatory outbursts. You also got a closer look at why Ed Koch will be the next mayor of New York City. After all, didn’t he run an indisputably well-thought-out, apparently true, eminently rational campaign that appealed to the get-the-creeps-out-of-my-neighborhood constituency? Didn’t he win by taking the side of the harried, postliberal middle class against the nether class?
It was chilling and inescapable. Tolerance levels have gone down. The Leelikes said the thing they hated most about the sleazos was that they’re so snotty. In the old days, when Susan Leelike went to Cooper Union, junkies hung out in the Sagamore Cafeteria, near Astor Place. Dope fiends those days knew they were outcasts and acted accordingly. The Leelikes remembered these Burroughsian types with a touch of romanticism. Now, they said, methadone makes being a junkie legal. And the creeps have come out into the daylight, where it quickly becomes apparent that junkies aren’t the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.
This hit home. A few weeks ago I was walking by Cooper Square. A guy in his mid-twenties was stretched out on the ground, twitching. He didn’t look like a lowlife; he had French jeans on. A small crowd gathered around him. A cabbie stopped and put on his emergency blinker. The guy seemed to be having a seizure. Maybe he’s an epileptic, said the cabby, pull his tongue out of his mouth. Two people went for the cops, another to call an ambulance. Finally an older man rolled up the guy’s sleeve. The dude’s arm looked like a Penn Central yard. The older guy threw the arm back on the sidewalk in disgust. “He’s just a fucking junkie,” the cabby said. “A fucking junkie.” Half the people in crowd said, “Shit … ” And everyone just split. Me, too. I split. When the guy’s an epileptic he’s human; when he’s a junkie, fuck him. I remembered how, 10 years ago, we used to guide Hell’s Angels through bad trips even though we knew they would probably run us over if they were straight. Somehow figured it was our duty. This guy wasn’t any of my business.
So I knew the Leelikes had the trend on their side. Also, it was clear — they are determined. They are willing to run the risk of being called redneck — Susan Leelike says, “I hate it when they call me the white lady” — to get rid of sleazos. And they don’t flinch when you ask them where they propose the sleazos go. “It’s just not our problem,” they say.
The Arrest of Ernest James
Patrolmen Bob Woerner and Dennis Harrington are in an empty office above Glancy’s Bar on East 14th Street and Irving Place, hiding. Harrington and Woerner have been partners for six years. They used to work the smack detail on Avenues A, B, C, and D (called avenues X, Y, and Z in cop parlance). But pressure from Sweet 14 and local politicians on the department to “do something” about 14th Street brought them here 11 months ago. Since then Woerner and Harrington, tough and smart cops, have been the most effective (in terms of arrests) of the twenty men on the Ninth Precinct’s “14th Street Task Force.”
Sometimes Woerner and Harrington walk down 14th Street and ask buzz-brained cats, “Hey, man. What you doing?” It’s a torture technique; they know that the toughest question in the world for a sleazo is “What are you doing?” Creeps’ knees buckle under the weight of that one; they say, “I dunno, what am I doing?” But what Woerner and Harrington really like to do is make busts. Which is why they are hiding in the empty room above Glancy’s Bar with their binoculars trained on the action beneath the Palladium marquee.
Making busts on 14th Street isn’t tough. Sometimes guys will be so loaded they come right up and say, “Placidyl … Placidyl … oh, shee-it” before they realize they’re talking to the Man. It is tricky, however. First of all, the captain doesn’t like cops to make too many arrests. He says busts take police off the street and put them in court. But cops say the department doesn’t give enough of a shit about what’s in the street to pay overtime. Primarily though, when you’re making “observation” busts on 14th Street, you’ve got to see them good. Most of the sellers get their stuff from scrip doctors, which means their own name is on the bottle. It is not a crime to carry “controlled substances” — if the (not-forged) scrip is made out to you. Selling the stuff, however, is illegal. So, instead of just grabbing a single party, like a smack bust, cops have to get both the buyer and the seller as well as recover the shit cold. They also have to see the deal go down perfectly — that is, if they’re not into fudging evidence in court. Woerner and Harrington say, why fudge, on 14th Street if you miss one sale, they’ll soon be another. But still, it hurts when you’ve been freezing behind the Con Edison fence at 14th and Third, waiting for just the right view. And then, right at the big moment, a bus goes by.
Tonight, however, it ain’t gonna be no prob-lem. Foghat, some mindless boogie band, is playing the Palladium and a dozen suburban kids are milling around in front of the theater, looking to get stupid. Woerner and Harrington are licking their lips. All they need is a seller. And from down the street, trudging slowly up from Third Avenue by the poolroom, here he comes. In unison the cops shout, ALL RIGHT, ERNEST JAMES … COME ON, ERNEST JAMES. Ernest James, a gangly guy with a face and beard like Sonny Rollins, came on. He walked into a crowd of leather-jacketed white kids. Got into a conversation with one. Took him off to the doorway of the fight gym. Then it couldn’t have been clearer if Otto Preminger were directing. Out came the bottle. There went the pill. Across came the three dollars. And down the stairs went Woerner and Harrington.
Like nothing, Harrington was reading Ernest James his rights. Woerner had the buyer, a blonde boy from Pelham Bay, up against the wall. Ernest James, the perfect degenerate, pulled out a slew of false I.D.s, a Kool cigarette, and looked impassively at the sky. Against the wall another kid was screaming to the buyer, “Jeff, Jeff … give me your ticket for the show.”
Ernest James was in big trouble. He had a goddamned drugstore on him. Ten bottles of pills in all: 26 big white tabs thought to be Quaaludes, 21 Tuinals, 15 Seconals, 40 unknown peach-colored pills, 34 unknown white pills, 23 ampicillins, 29 unknown yellow pills, and several dozen Placidyls. Most of the bottles were made out to Ernest James. Some to Ernest Jones. Some to A. Ramos. One was just to “Ernest,” which prompted Woerner to wonder if Ernest James was on a first-name basis with his pharmacist. Also found were two Garcia y Vega humidors full of 5- and 10-mg. Valium. Neither one of those was made out to anyone. Almost all the scrips were supposedly written by one Doctor Jacob Handler of West 103rd Street. Doctor Handler is a 14th-Street favorite. Harrington keeps a little scorecard of doctors’ names that appear on bottles. Doctor Handler is way up near the top of the list. But the cops say nothing will happen to him because “it’s tough to bust a doctor.”
In Dr. Handler’s defense, it was thought that Ernest James forged some of the scripts. After all, Ernest has half-a-dozen different medical identification cards. Some are made to the name William Summersall, others to A. Ramos and Ernest Jones. He also had a little notebook in which he has apparently been practicing different signatures. Most are Ernest Jones. But there is also a page on which “Texas Slim” is written a dozen times.
Under the 15-watt glare in the Ninth’s arrest room, Harrington books Ernest James. This is nothing new — Harrington has arrested Ernest James before. In fact, Ernest has six busts for pills this year already. Too bad, figures Dennis Harrington: Ernest James is not a bad guy. In fact, Dennis thinks, most of the guys he busts aren’t real bad. Just a bunch of losers. Ernest James had $84 on him, but that had to be his life savings. Most guys have about $30. “Sometimes it is that ‘there but for fortune thing,” says Dennis, who is haunted by the memory of his brother, who was “into junk.” He also thinks about that same picture they always show of Karen Quinlan. Dennis wonders if she got her downs on 14th Street.
Asked where he got all the pills, Ernest James is cool. “I’m qualified to have as many pills as I want,” he says. Asked about all the different IDs, Ernest says, “I’m qualified to have as many names as I want.”
While the cops count up the rest of Ernest’s stash, I ask him if he thinks the businessmen and cops can clean up 14th Street. He says, “I dunno ’bout no cleanup. All I know is I wanna get to St. Louis. I can do security over there. I can’t sell these pills no more. But if I don’t, I got bread and water. My philosophy is that if the city put the clean in the street, they put the dirt in the street, too. Goes both ways. There is one thing that’s sure. Ain’t no way to clean up this. Cops come fuck up with 14th Street, people just gonna go somewheres else. If they want to get rid of the dirt, they gonna have to shoot those motherfuckers. Line up those motherfuckers and kill them. All of them. Dead.”
‘Junkies Out of the Park’
Woe is Ernest James. He got caught in the cleanup. Usually Ernest winds up with one of those mumbo-jumbo raps like Time-Served or Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal. In other words, he gets off. Not bad, considering pill-pushing is a class-D felony worth up to seven years. This time, however, Ernest James is taking the fall. The D.A is making an example of him. A special grand jury on soft drugs is indicting him. Instead of the usual weekend at Rikers, they’re offering Ernest a year. And that’s if he pleads.
Tough shit, Ernest James. Add insult to injury: When Ernest got picked up on September 30, he claimed it was his birthday. No one believed him. But it was true. Happy birthday, Ernest James.
Another thing Ernest James was right about: If you move a sleazo, he’ll just go somewhere else. You got to kill the motherfuckers … dead. Down in Chinatown, they say that’s what Mao did with the opium addicts. Hopheads can’t drive tractors, so Mao’s guys just put them up against the wall and blew their brains out. Bet there ain’t no sleazy corners in Shanghai.
For a society stuck with half a million sleazoids (conservative metropolitan-area estimate) this could be an eminently modest proposal. Discussing this alternative with liberal city councilman Henry Stern, he says, “Of course, I’m not in favor of killing these people.” But Stern admits that he can’t figure out what to do with them. “It’s a dilemma,” he says, “maybe it’s one of the biggest dilemmas in the city today.” Miriam Friedlander, another liberal councilperson who has been working closely with Sweet 14, also does not favor wholesale annihilation. She takes a more conventional tack, saying. “It’s my primary function to break up that situation and get them out of the neighborhood.”
In place of execution, the pols offer “redevelopment.” “Redevelopment” is a coming concept in the city-planning business. A modification of the pave-it-all-over-and-start-from-scratch school of urban studies, “redevelopment” essentially means taking over “depressed” areas and transforming them into middle-class shopping and residential areas. The best-known example of “redevelopment” is on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A civic group came into possession of several “tax-arrears” buildings and redid them into boutiques. Henry Stern, Miriam Friedlander, Koch, and the rest feel that “redevelopment” is at least worth trying on 14th Street and Third Avenue. And with economic biggies like Charlie Luce, Helmsley-Spear, Citibank, and Restaurant Associates around, you know the job will get done right. Oh, boy, will it.
Of course, “redevelopment” stops short of final solutions. So Ernest James’s philosophy holds up. Due to the hard-nose police work by the “14th Street Task Force,” the sleazos have begun a minor migration. Routed from parts of 14th Street, they camped in Stuyvesant Park on Second Avenue and 15th Street. According to the locals, who say they pay extra rent to live near the park, the situation is becoming disgusting. Methadone addicts are leaving their bottles all over the place. Pill-pushers are dealing. The other day two of the he-shes got into a little mutual around the world.
The neighborhood forces rallied, led by one Jeanne Pryor, a right-minded lady who loves a firm grip on the bullhorn (who last week opened a cleanup storefront at 14th and Third). They decided that the 13th Precinct was not providing adequate protection from the sleazos. They demanded police guards in the park.
One night last month a protest march was organized. About 150 people showed up to carry signs saying things like OUR CHILDREN ONCE PLAYED FRISBEE IN THIS PARK. Others carried shopping bags full of empty scrip bottles they said were collected in the park. These were a present for Capt. Joseph Neylan of the 13th, who, Ms. Pryor kept shouting, “has been out to lunch for the past six months.”
The march, accompanied by a man in a kilt playing a bagpipe, began at 15th Street and headed up Third Avenue toward the precinct house on 21st Street. Ms. Pryor had planted stories in the Daily News, so the local television stations sent out crews to cover. Arc lights flooded the streets as Ms. Pryor led the chant of “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.”
As the march reached 17th Street, it started to get interesting. A messed-up black guy bounded in front of the marchers and held up his hands like he was stopping a runaway team of horses. “Stop!” he said, the TV lights glaring in his buzzed eyes. Stunned, Ms. Pryor halted in her tracks. The whole march bumped to a stop. There was a silence. Then the guy started chanting, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK. JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” The marchers stepped back. The guy kept screaming, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” Then he stopped and looked the bagpipe player right in the eye and said, “I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … Get me out of the park … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … “
The mock has turned to a plea.
It was then that Jeanne Pryor should have acted. She should have taken out a 12-gauge shotgun and blown the creep’s head off. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 4, 2020