Jim Holt Guides Us Around Greenwich Village

Many years ago, when I was a child, my mother and father brought me to New York City to see the sights. We took a boat to the Statue of Liberty, went to the top of the Empire State Building, and caught Camelot on Broadway with Richard Burton as King Arthur, which I liked rather a lot. What made the greatest impression on me, though, was our visit to Greenwich Village. This perhaps had something to do with my parents’ constantly repeated admonition: Don’t stare at the weirdos.

Today I am a resident of Greenwich Village and, disappointingly, none of the tourists shows the slightest inclination to stare at me. Indeed, I sometimes feel that I am letting the neighbourhood down, that my bland presence here is eroding its traditional power to symbolise the forbidden, free life. Spiritually bohemian though I am, in outward appearance I come off as another one of those bourgeois types whose arrival in the Village has at various times in this century led to the melancholy consensus that the whole thing is ‘over’.

Is the Village in fact over? Has it ceased to be, in the words of the great Quentin Crisp, ‘the district where the new ideas of America are born’? Is it not longer, as Max Bodenheim, the patron saint of the Beats, once called it, ‘the Coney Island of the soul’? (Or ‘the Coney Island of the mind’ , as Peter Conrad would somewhat derivatively have it – but more about him later.)

Well, the little block of Morton Street I moved to certainly turned out to be Parnassian enough. The fellow living in the basement of the townhouse across the street, a poet called Brodsky, claims to be a Nobel laureate; I was sceptical of this at first, but a quick check of the almanac revealed that it is not jest, and now I look forward to dropping by in a neighbourly way to read him some of my very beautiful haiku. The nameless hash joint below me, I discovered, is actually one of New York’s most exclusive literary salons; the other day I read in a nationally syndicated newspaper column that its proprietor, a big, bellowing, Johnsonian figure named Kenny – the very guy who scrambles my eggs in the morning – is the ‘Philosopher King of Morton Street’ . I used to behave somewhat condescendingly towards the man across the hall, whom I mistook for a retired blue-collar worker; then I found out he was a prolific avant-garde novelist and an erstwhile Levantine spy in Paris. Give me a break.

I did not specifically move to the Village to be surrounded by these sorts. As a matter of fact, the couple upstairs are more my type: when I mentioned to them the other night that I had just watched the Olivier Lear on a miniature TV – an excruciating experience, by the way they responded, ‘Oh, is that the one about the Harvard guy who takes LSD?’ What mainly drew me here was the crooked streets denoted by names rather than numbers; the ‘squares’ that are actually acute triangles; the ample, gnarled old trees; the federal row houses, converted stables and Victorian tenements; the absence of modern high-rises (with one unfortunate exception, which Villagers tolerate much as Parisians do the Tour Montparnasse) – in short, all of the ingredients needed to create the illusion of ‘little ol’ New York’.

Shortly after arriving here, though, the ‘Is it over?’ question began to vex me. I wondered what I had missed by coming to the village rather late in the twentieth century . The antidote proved to be a recently published coffee-table book entitled Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way (Crown Press, $18.95), by a playwright called Terry Miller. It is full of historical illustrations and topping anecdotes, and is very beguiling to browse through. If you must visit this diseased, neurotic, lawless, and wildly enjoyable part of New York, it may be the book for you. And when you return home you can display it on the whatnot next to the aspidistra.

I must say that I was somewhat disappointed with the Village’s literary history as recounted in Miller’s book. Sure, Edna St-Vincent Millay lived in just about every other house here at one point or another in her life, and Hemingway got drunk in most of the bars. But when Villagers decided in 1833 to name Waverly Place after Sir Walter Scott’s novel, they couldn’t even get the spelling right. The most lasting product of the House of Genius, a late nineteenth-century boarding house cum arts colony, was not a bona fide work of genius, but the word blurb (to self promote; to make noises like a publisher). Among the founders of the ‘Writers’ Room’ was Nancy Mitford, but not that Nancy Mitford. And so on.

Many legendary Greenwich Village eccentrics appear to have been rather unpleasant people whose disappearance it is hard to regret. One of these was Doris the Dope, a cocaine addict who maintained she was the discarded mistress of Lord Alfred Douglas. ‘Doris made her living by coughing,’ Miller tells us, ‘startling uptowners with well-timed guttural hacks as she panhandled them for change’: charming. The Village’s political history is also a trifle frivolous. Unbeknownst to most residents, the neighbourhood has been a ‘free and sovereign republic’ since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp and several other self-styled rebels surreptitiously climbed to the top of the Washington Square Arch and read a declaration of independence consisting of the word ‘whereas’ repeated over and over again.

For an eccentric slant on what life is like in the Village today, what better source to turn to than an opera critic and Fellow of Christ Church who makes his home here part of the year? I am thinking, of course, of Peter Conrad, who divides his time among residences in London, Oxford, Lisbon, and New York, and has written about them all in his recently published Where I Fell to Earth: A Life in Four Cities. (In England the subtitle was ‘A Life in Four Places’ – is Oxford too heavenly to be deemed a city?) The greatest number of pages are devoted to New York, which seems to be the author’s favourite milieu of the four.

Although Conrad first came to this city as an utter naif, his tireless scrutiny of ‘the jiving ballets of the New York pavements’ has made him street-smart, a sort of erudite Ratso Rizzo. He conveys his impressions in rich, soaring prose, which at its most inspired verges on wordmusic. And he is nothing if not imaginative. To him the neon drop of coffee dripping out of the giant Maxwell House cup across the Hudson River is an ‘unstaunchable ruby tear’ being shed in perpetuity for the sins of Manhattan. The entrance to the waterfront disco Mars puts him in mind of Charles Ryder’s ‘low door in the wall’ (a comparison that has ruined the Brideshead passage for at least one person I know). But on a crucial occasion Conrad’s imagination lets him down. Remarking a sign in the meat-packing district of the Village which advertises ‘Complete Lamb Fabrication’, he fails to realise that he has stumbled on the answer to the question, ‘Little lamb, who made thee?’

Conrad would seem to be a bit of a voyeur, judging from his description of a fairly sordid homosexual encounter he comes upon while reconnoitring the Village piers (there are so many observers in addition to Conrad that the active partner gives up, exclaiming ‘Sure I’m an exhibitionist, but this is ridiculous’). He also spies on his neighbours through their windows, whom he sees engaged in such exotic adventures as talking on the phone, staring at the wall, singing an aria from Manon, and masturbating in a cowboy outfit. Conrad certainly lives up to Henry James’s advice to a would-be artist – ‘Be one on whom nothing is lost’ – but his generalisations about life in Greenwich Village are not always trustworthy. ‘Nothing can hold out for long here against being made an object of aesthetic appraisal and thus of erotic fascination,’ he says. Well, I had, and guessing from the jacket photo of Conrad, I would say he has too. Still, he has written a delightful book, and now that I know he lives nearby I shall be on the look out for a short Tasmanian with carved hair.

The Village has never been an entirely safe place. In the past one ran the risk of being hit on the head by Hart Crane’s typewriter, which the poet routinely tossed out the window when unhappy with his verse. Today, by contrast, the chief danger is posed by homeless crack-addicts, whose growing presence here long-time Villagers (a traditionally liberal and tolerant lot) are having second thoughts about – especially after one of them shot a young ad executive to death in a phone booth here late last summer. There are also an increasing number of ‘fag-bashers’, baseball-bat-wielding youths who drive in from Brooklyn and New Jersey to exact retribution for AIDS. To counter this threat, Village gays have gotten together a self-defence group called the ‘Pink Panthers’ and have begun to bash back. It is not quite Beirut yet, but still …

Perhaps the weirdest new marauders in the Village are a host of transvestite prostitutes who ply their trade in the meat-packing district, which has long been a homosexual hunting-ground. Mostly black and hispanic, they are said to cater to married men typically driving cars with New Jersey licence plates. Some are reportedly trying to earn money for sex-change operations.

Although it is easy to understand why there should be a proliferation of these lumpen-transvestites – they are presumably the fruit of the fatherless families that are now the norm among America’s underclass – I was curious to see them with my own eyes. So one Sunday morning I disguised myself as a jogger and lolloped on over to the meat-packing district, which is frightening even by day with its meathooks overhanging the sidewalk and the smell of rancid blood in the air. No sooner had I entered the area than a gaggle of drag queens descended on me, quoting their rates for oral sex. Not wanting to injure their self-esteem – for isn’t a deficit of self-esteem the cause of their pathology in the first place? – I pleaded lack of money, whereupon they said they would give me a free introductory offer. By this point, fortunately, I had jogged out of conversational range.

My foray to this increasingly violent and scary region of the Village left me with no great desire to go back. A few weeks later, however, Mayor Dinkins proclaimed that New Yorkers must come out from behind their locked doors and barred windows and retake the streets after dark if the crime wave is to end. It was clear where my civic duty lay. Accordingly, I decided to make a return visit by night – but only in the company of my new best friend Christopher Hitchens, who is known to be incredibly tough and martial, even pitbull-like. After bucking up with a few rounds of gin at the Lion’s Head tavern, we made our way towards the waterfront, our destination being an isolated but decidedly chic 24-hour restaurant called Florent. We got there safely, ate, and, after an endless argument over whether there was a moral distinction between extinction and extermination – which Christopher won only because I had been out until dawn the previous night – emerged in the small hours. The area positively pullulated with drag queens, crack smokers, louche skulkers, and bad citizens of all stripes. Yet despite lots of threatening looks they left us alone.

Things can only get worse for the Village once the Times Square ‘renewal’ project gets going and more of the nasty types who haunt 42nd Street make their way down here. In this respect, I fear, the Village is far from ‘over’. Indeed, it is just beginning.

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