Did you ever sit in the kind of rickety chair you found in the street and brought back home into your apartment because this is where we all got our furniture back in the day, cast off from someone else’s life? Did you sit and look at the place in the wall where the paint job was peeling and you got up, picked at it and found another layer, a different color of off yellow, off green or off white, even red than what you had since the day you moved in because that was what landlords did they painted over and threw out the old broken down chairs when someone else moved in and painted layer upon layer of paint on the wall, on the pipes, on the door jambs, on the exposed brick, on the bathtub in the kitchen with animal claws.
Did you ever get out a butter knife and gently peel off the layers of paint all the way down to the original color? If the sun hit just right through your window as it set in the west, you realized it must have set the same way over 100 years ago when the original European son gypsy family lived there, and for just a fleeting moment, as the magic hour of sunlight lit up all the bricks and the ivy on the rusty fire escape outside your window, you believed you were the youngest bawling son of that gypsy family and for a minute you stopped crying and all your aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters looked at you?
“Did you ever think that?”
“Not really,” I told John Dakota.
“Well then you really don’t have much of an imagination, do ya?”
“I guess not,” I shook my head.
We were standing in the largest empty lot east of Bowery at that time, what later became a mud bowl parking lot and now a Whole Foods franchise below another grand scale apartment building courtesy of the architect’s plans of someone who drew them in Cleveland or some such place and nothing against Cleveland but he had never ever set foot in any place called the East Village.
We are here because John Dakota’s girlfriend threw him out, and he talked me into helping him put up a tent there, more of a lean-to really, a blue tarp that we tied to the branch of a tree that hung over a fence from someone’s backyard plot on Bowery. We’re between Bowery and Chrystie.
“Did you happen to check a weather report?” I asked him.
“Why?” He was looking over his shoulder at Gypsy.
“You don’t feel that wind blowing in?”
“What wind? I don’t feel nothing.”
“It’s just I heard it might snow is all.”
“Don’t be a square, man. Lou Reed made this town.”
“Lou Reed made this town.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. He shook his head. He knew better and he had a tent to put up. Why were we here? Because John Dakota was proud.
He was too good to sleep with the skeavy crowd in Tompkins Square in the city of the homeless and lost there. A lot of people assume that the Tent City came before the riots and might even have been one of the actual causes. But the Tent City came after the riots, and got worse and worse until the cops came in to kick everyone out. They closed the park for months.
We were just feeling the first snowflakes as the sun was going down in the west. Strangely there was still a yellow streak of sunlight atop purple clouds in the northern sky. The night before John had emceed a talent show that I had been lucky enough to attend, at a particularly memorable and bizarre place called Save the Robots on Avenue B, I think between maybe 3rd and 4th Streets. The first act was an old friend of ours who came in with a live pig, wearing a black leather zipper mask, our friend that is not the pig. He led the pig onto the stage and the pig sat down. At the end of the performance he took the pig away.
The second act involved a chain saw and a man in a full body cast. You could smell the fear in the air as the chainsaw was switched on. What you smelled was the sweat that we all broke out in as the chainsaw cut through the plaster cast toward the man’s skin.
I went to the bathroom to get high; it was too much for me.
I came back and John Dakota was holding up the cast and the room was filled with applause. No one was bleeding. A man in a tutu held out his arms and threw kisses. But they did not win first prize. This was a young woman with an amazingly detached air about her, who took off her clothes bent over her lap and sewed her sex shut with a needle and a thread. She took home fifty bucks.
After the show I talked to John Dakota, a big long-haired Indian in a black t-shirt and beaded headband. I told him about the problems I was having with my wife.
“I’m going away,” I told him.
“You need a place to stay for a couple days.”
“No problem, just meet me here at the bar, tomorrow noon. I get paid then.”
I was there and so was he, but in the meantime his wife kicked him out and that was what found us in the empty lot on Houston. It was a giant space. Where an entire block of tenements had been torn down. There was tall grass and parts of a carnival that had been held years before and then for god knows what reason abandoned there. You would be walking around and suddenly there would be a rusting gondola from a ferris wheel at your feet. John Dakota told me to meet him in a few hours.
“When it’s getting dark,” he said.
“Meet you, in the lot?”
“It’ll be fine, man. I got to get the tent.”
“So things are over with your wife?”
“Girlfriend. You’re not going to believe this, but she’s pregnant and she wants to have the kid.”
We had come out of the dark bar into the daylight and we were both standing on the sidewalk of Avenue B blinking at each other. He held up his finger to his mouth like to say keep it quiet man.
“I gave her the money to have an abortion.”
“You don’t want to be a father?”
“I’m a guitar player, man.” He looked around like someone passing by might be listening and lowered his voice. “We’ve been through this before a few times and…”
“How many times, John?”
He held up some fingers. “Not more than four.”
“You can’t blame her.”
“Sure okay,” he said gesticulating wildly with his hands. “But she took the money and had an ultrasound.”
“How is that right?”
He shook his head. He pulled the headband from his head and smoothed his long black hair. He had a thing about his hair. His claim to fame was that when he was a mere teenager he had played drums in a jam session with Jimi Hendrix. Everybody knows that when Jimi was in New York he would stay in the East Village, he said. I asked him why he had not played guitar and he assured me. No one played guitar in the same band with Hendrix, man.
He showed up at the lot at dusk astride a horse. I could not believe it when they came through the tall grass. It was like a movie. It was a miracle. He jumped down and yelled.
“Grab the reins and help me tie it to the tree.”
I must have jumped back at least five feet and he stood there holding the horse’s reigns laughing at me.
“Where the fuck did you get that?”
“It’s a male, man. Gypsy.”
“How do you know?”
But By then I had seen the blanket under the saddle and recognized the NYPD emblem.
“Don’t tell me where you got that, John. I don’t want to know.”
“The stable is down by the Holland Tunnel. The door was open. I walked right in there and took him.”
“How did you get it here?”
“Rode it, man,” he said proudly. I’ve been riding horses since I was a kid.
He tied the horse to the tree. It looked around and its eyes looked wide and shiny. What that horse was thinking one can only guess, but it did not look too happy about being kidnapped by the likes of John Dakota. We set to work on the lean-to. John Dakota turned on a portable tape player. The first song was an unreleased version of European Son by the Velvets. He turned it as loud as it would go. The snow was falling hard and we were shivering.
For just a minute though, it was beautiful: the way the snowflakes hit the strands of grass and stuck on the tiny gray pods, the way the horse looked in the gloaming there in the empty lot east of Bowery. You could see it breathing, the heat that came off its flanks in the wisps of condensation. John Dakota bent over a post he was hammering into the bare earth.
Then it was over. Thank God for Downtown. We didn’t hear him, the guitar solo was too loud and screechy. He pulled my sleeve and there he was, looking as he always did as an Okie version of Bogart’s long lost illegitimate son.
“Let’s get out of here man.”
“What about John?”
I looked over and tapped his shoulder. He turned down the music.
“What are you going to do with that horse, man?”
He looked at me and Downtown then at the horse. He shrugged. The look on his face was the most forlorn thing your ever saw.
Downtown took me by the sleeve and dragged me toward the hole in the fence on the Houston St. side. “You can crash in Times Square with me.”
What I can say? I left John Dakota with the horse in the empty field. Later I heard that he was arrested as a horse thief and ended up in a police lockdown flight deck on Ward’s Island for more than a year. His girlfriend had his son and raised it herself. Now the kid is in school. John got out, came into some money from a dead uncle and opened a guitar sales and repair shop on Rivington. You cannot make this up. The kid comes and visits him, working there on weekends. He and the old lady get along fine. I was not to return to the area for awhile myself. How did I know that when I came back all we had known then, the whole life would be gone and the East Village would be a completely different place?
Andrew Hubner’s novels, American by Blood and We Pierce, are published by Simon and Schuster. ABB was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Award; it is now on a fifth movie option, previously it has been held by Universal and Warner Bros. WP was a NY Times Notable Book.