Buried Alive


Taylor Mead unplugs an appliance so I can get in the door. The apartment has a single working electrical outlet, on the wall behind the refrigerator, right next to the entrance. It’s a classic tenement flat: two small rooms, tub in the kitchen, gentrification imminent. The first thing I notice is the narrow foam pad where the 77-year-old Mead sleeps, on the floor between the fridge and the bathtub. In his 23 years in this apartment, he has never owned a bed, but until recently, the foam pad was wedged into the smaller second room next to a hillside of undifferentiated junk. Now that room is empty and slats are visible across the back wall where all the plaster fell down. The former Warhol “superstar” shows me the termination notice ordering him to leave by October 7, “as you are committing or permitting a nuisance.” They cite “floor to ceiling garbage,” the fire hazard, the vermin. Now the date’s come and gone, and he’s worried. He’s on a fixed income. Where would he go? Besides, he’s lived in 30-odd New York apartments and this is the one “most suitable.”

“They claimed that I was spreading bedbugs around the building,” Mead says. He admits that his place was infested with cockroaches, “but I’ve never had bedbugs.” Decades ago, he occasionally stayed in Bowery flophouses, so he thinks he knows a bedbug.

Mead is a poet, painter, writer (On Amphetamines and in Europe), and above all, an actor with an impish persona. He won an Obie for his performance in Frank O’Hara’s The General in 1964, and he’s made well over 100 films, beginning in the ’50s with Beatnik obscurities like Too Young, Too Immoral and The Flower Thief. He met Andy Warhol in 1963, immediately starring in the Pop artist’s Tarzan movie (as Tarzan) and beginning a friendship he now remembers with a certain dyspepsia.

J. Hoberman once labeled Mead “the first underground movie star,” and he was part of the truly “indie” scene—the one with no crossover potential, no residual check, and no Hollywood remake. For Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, for example, he got $200 and a trip to Arizona. Mead is luckier than most, however, because he grew up well-off, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and gets $700 a month from his father’s estate. The rent on his decrepit pad is a miraculous $265. He seems to like money as much as the next person; he just can’t marry his art to it. This despite beginning his adult life as a stockbroker trainee.

When Mead moved to Ludlow in 1979, to what had been a friend’s apartment, the street felt dangerous and creepy. “The old landlord, Joe, said, ‘Since I’ve heard of you, you can stay.’ Then he sort of used me as a panache to interest people in the building. But after five years, the explosion [in real estate] came. He didn’t need me anymore.”

Artists change the ‘hood with their “panache,” then have to leave. Old story. But there’s a larger point to be made. Taylor Mead is the kind of artist who may not show up on the scene ever again. This is not just someone with a total disregard for ordinary comfort, but someone with a complete inability to make a life outside of impulse and the aesthetic that springs from impulse. Mead’s old compadre, Jack Smith, the visionary auteur behind Flaming Creatures, comes to mind as another who would have been radically incapable of, say, setting up a pension plan. Or much of any plan. And this is no longer a city where one can live without a plan.

Mead is lucky. Amy Wallin, who produced and directed his revival of The General early this year, spent seven long days in August, with a friend, shoveling out the apartment. “It took us a couple days before we even saw part of the floor,” says Wallin. They went through every single paper and stored archival items in plastic bins. Then on September 4, exterminators came in, ignored the garbage Wallin had bagged, and took Mead’s clothing, books, electric piano, and God-knows-what and threw it into the backyard.

Mead happened to return with two young filmmakers, William Kirkley and Crystal Moselle, who’ve been filming him over the past two and a half years for a documentary called Excavating Taylor Mead. They helped him carry things back up the five flights. But they all got tired after a couple of hours and decided to finish the next day. By then, the bags were out on Ludlow Street. Mead couldn’t tell which ones were his, and “I wasn’t about to be seen digging through garbage.” He thinks it will take him years to figure out what he lost. He can’t find all the videotapes of his films now. Or his home movies. Or the beautiful letter Allen Ginsberg sent from India. He’s clearly upset, then chuckles, “That’s how I edit.”

For someone who’s had such an eventful and star-crossed life, Mead owns very little. A radio. A small TV. A VCR. There is no furniture to speak of, but he did just acquire a coffee table discovered in the backyard September 4. Mead also found his toaster oven again. He doesn’t use the stove. Years ago, he thought there was a gas leak and had it disconnected. A flannel shirt hangs on the oven door. More clothing hangs from a gas pipe near the ceiling. He does not have a closet. His own paintings—loose figurative stuff—decorate the walls. Then there’s a Western vista, actually a Marlboro ad, a newspaper centerfold. “To get some space,” he explains. He suggests that we head across the street to the Pink Pony for the interview. There’s no place to sit here. He does not own a chair.

“One of my excuses for not totally keeping the place anti-septic is I’ve had a broken hand the last couple years,” Mead says, as he wraps a splint around his right forearm. He fell down the 14 steps outside his apartment on millennium eve, 1999—his 75th birthday. Shattered his elbow. He’s had three surgeries.

At the door, he goes over a checklist he keeps atop the refrigerator to consult each time he leaves the apartment: “Splint. Keys. Money. Snacks . . . ” Mead eats and drinks free at a number of downtown establishments that recognize his hardcore boho credentials. He’s a night person. During the wee hours, “after the dogs are walked,” he visits seven Lower East Side parking lots to feed stray cats. Then he usually hangs out at some watering hole till closing time, and goes home to watch TV, usually falling asleep around five. He has two cats at home. There used to be seven. Until recently, his floor—those parts visible, at least—was covered with cat litter.

“We had to almost use a jackhammer to get that litter up,” says Wallin. “It had hardened onto the floor. We had to use a crowbar.” Though the matter of Mead’s eviction is still unresolved, she plans to install carpeting, and get him a couple of small tables. He’s never had a table. Mead also informs me, his misgivings evident, that Wallin may be buying him a bed. And he isn’t sure he’s ready for that.