|NOTES FROM THE UNDERBELLY|
But I couldn't pass up 50 bucks a month. After moving in I realized the shaggy guy that rented me the place and his mate were the Purple People -- a pair of anterior new-agers (or posterior hippies, depending on your perspective). They called themselves Adam and Eve Purple, and they were locally kind of famous. I'd seen them dressed in purple tie-dyed garments driving their little purple bicyles around town. But here they were in their lair... a kind of bunker setup on the ground floor which lent a strong Omega Man aroma to the situation.
184 Forsyth was a six-story tenement; my apartment (somehow the word isn’t appropriate though) was on the 5th. At that time there were, I think, besides me and The Purple People, two other apartments occupied, although the people in one of them moved out before I ever saw them. The other one was right below me. The guy that lived in it was still in high-school, but living on his own, making his way by selling hotdogs at Shea Stadium. (He was a Dead-head. At the time I thought it was strange that someone that young -- of course I was only 22 myself -- would like the Grateful Dead… little did I know, eh?) I remember helping him remove layer after layer of linoleum (seven in all) from his kitchen area floor… underneath it all were newspapers announcing German annexation of the Sudetenland (true, I swear). He was gone after a few months. Over the next couple of years, people came and went. (Rock luminaries Helen Wheels and Sylvain Sylvain were among them.) The Purples had put more ads in the Voice, but now they were only interested in people who would join them in their dream of creating Eden. I decidedly did not fit into that category. With my leather jacket and boots, and the odors of cooking animal flesh seeping from my domicile, not to mention my very pores, I probably would have been expelled, except I guess I had some kind of seniority by that time. They wanted folks who would work in the garden (hey, I hadn’t moved to NYC to do gardening), accompany them on manure-gathering expeditions, figure out new ways to rip off Ma Bell and Con Ed, and generally form a commune with Adam Purple as the Leader. But despite our differences in outlook, Mr. P and I got on okay right up to the end.
As I understand it (and given the vagaries of my memory and haphazard nature of how I learned it), the story of the building was something like this: sometime in the winter of ’76-’77 (a particularly bad one, as was the next), the heat at 184 broke down, and some of the pipes burst. People (mostly, if not all, Latinos, which was the majority minority in the neighborhood) left in a hurry. (Going through the stuff they left behind in the apartments was a little Twilight Zonesque… clothes thrown wildly about, a broken doll, snapshots of families dressed ala the ‘50s standing in neatly appointed kitchens that were now disaster areas, and such.) The Purple Man, who was already ensconced there, stayed on. There was a rumor that he himself had engineered the calamity in order to get control of the building. But this was told to me by a latter-day 184 tenant who was on the outs with him at the time. And anyway it wouldn’t be surprising if such a rumor circulated in that quarter, given that people there mostly regarded him as at best a kook, if not a psycho. As for me, I’d say he was just eccentric and driven by his vision; considering the venue, that’s hardly a blip on the screen. The original Voice ad was put in because they desperately needed more people to squat (as I subsequently found out I was doing) in the building to keep it from being overrun by junkies and/or confiscated by the city. Later, as Mr. P was developing his commune idyll, the population of 184 grew. There seemed to have been a schism, though, and there were even some misguided attempts by both parties to get me to take a side. It was during this period when Mr. P defined the term “mugwump” for me. Naturally I maintained my place above the fray.
Around this time, too, the Purples had a baby. As far as I know, it was Mr. P’s progeny, and as I remember it entered the world right there at 184 (but maybe not). Not too long after that, Mrs. P (whose name I learned, but can’t remember), left the enclave for the Land of Nod. I later heard she became a call girl on the Upper East Side, but I have no idea if that rumor had anything to it. If it were true, I guess I could understand why the mother-instinct might have kicked in and chosen that life over 184, but it would still be a bit ironic. Speaking of learning of names, one time a letter was mistakenly delivered to me with Mr. P's true name on it. When I gave it to him, he was clearly agitated about having his secret identity compromised. He needn't have worried... I'm not very good with names. Funny thing is I later learned he is from Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood was decaying around us. One usually-abandoned-except-for-junkies building after another burned down. It made for some nice spectacles… I would go up on the roof and watch, as close as ten or fifteen yards away, while the firemen did their jobs. Besides the entertainment value, it opened lebensraum for Eden’s expansion (which in turn led to rumors that Mr. P himself was setting some of the fires... I seriously doubt that). As regular people were burned out, junkies moved in, and several shooting galleries opened within a stone’s throw. They sometimes attempted a colonization of 184 too, but I think for the most part they were kind of afraid of Mr. P. (That’s one of the common-wisdom tricks to avoid getting attacked in NYC: let them think you’re nuts.) One time I had to lend some of my rare building-maintenance assistance to the Purples in cleaning out a room the junkies had been crashing in. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten fleas. Strangely enough, my apartment rarely suffered break-ins… maybe for the above-mentioned reason, or maybe they knew I didn’t have anything worth stealing. Once when I was out of town, they came in, but all they took was an army-surplus bayonet and a brass knuckles.
But anyway, things were getting worse in the vicinity, and for the last year or so I was a resident, Mr. P and I had 184 all to ourselves. He upped the monthly fee (one time I mistakenly referred to it as “rent,” which terminology he wasn’t at all happy with, since that would make him a "landlord") to $65 or $75… it was meant to cover heating oil costs. Not that I ever had heatI used to have to turn on my open oven, put on my long johns and ski mask, and crawl under as many covers as possible during the worst of the winter. But we always had hot water… I’ll give him that. And we almost always had electricity (which was never paid for, mind you). One time, the power went out… it was midday. I came downstairs to see what was up and found Mr. and Mrs. P looking very concerned. Mrs. P went outside to reconnoiter. Soon the power was back on and she came back in looking pretty proud. It seems Con Ed guys were in the hole down the block a little to turn off one of the buildings, and had mistakenly turned us off. When she told them what happened, they put us back on. Funny thing is, they knew we were squatters, but they didn’t care. Another time, Con Ed showed up at the door and said they had to check something in our basement. Mrs. P. was starting to open the padlock on the basement door when it suddenly occurred to her to ask them what they wanted down there. One of the guys said cheerfully, “We’re going to turn your building off.” Mrs. P blanched and slammed the lock shut, and the guy started laughing. “Just kidding,” he said, but she wasn't amused. She made him show her his work order before she’d let him go down.
We were under the ever-present shadow of shut-down by Con Ed or the city, as was the garden. But the only time they ever made a foray against it while I was there was the summer of ’77 or possibly ’78, I think. At that time the Purples had a fine crop of marijuana coming up in one of the plots. The police took exception to this and came around with big plastic bags to harvest it. The Purples made themselves scarce, but I don’t think the police were really concerned with catching them anyway. I watched the whole thing from my fire escape, and they never bothered to question me. But the incident was educational: the next day there was an article on the raid in The Daily News that contained some downright ridiculous stuff that the reporter had swallowed whole from some local kids he interviewed (e.g. they told him The Purple People loved for folks from the neighborhood to help themselves to the vegetables he grew there... yeah, right), and then printed without bothering to verify. I guess I always looked at news stories with a somewhat more jaded eye after that.
Well, all golden ages must come to an end. Towards the end of 1980 my girlfriend and I were planning to take up residence together, but of course there’s no way she’d live in that pit. Plus I’d just gotten a regular job, so I started laying plans to move. It’s funny, but the last couple of weeks I was there was the only time I was really scared. I'd come home late at night thinking that that’s the way things happen: “Here I am short… that’s when you get it!” By the way, I should mention that I never had any violence against my person as long as I lived down there. One time in the wee hours when I turned off Houston onto Forsyth, two drunk black youths crossed my path, and one of them, a real big guy he was, came up to me a pushed my shoulder and said something nasty. I got in his face (it was a bit of a stretch) and berated him for bothering someone who wasn’t doing him any harm. Which was a risky thing to do, but sometimes running, which is what my feet were fervently suggesting at the time, is even worse. Luckily, his buddy grabbed him and basically told him the same thing I had, said sorry to me, and off they went. It was around this time that my place was broken into again, only this time they came right through the wall. I came home and found a good-sized hole right over my bed. All they took was my TV, which was a $50 b&w from the local thrift store that had been chained by its molded-body-handle to the pipe. The chain was still there, so that means they had to break the poor TV to steal it. I wonder how much they got for it. Or maybe they just needed something to liven up their shooting gallery. I didn’t feel too bad about that, but I had to shove some plywood over the hole and brush the plaster and lathing off my bed before I could go to sleep. But then, a month or so later, they came back and took a bunch of my books and records. That hurt! So anyway, I was happy to bid adieu to184.
A few years later I wandered by to see what was up. It looked like the deterioration had stopped, and there was even a club on the corner of Rivington catering to white kids; yuppification appeared imminent. But I was fed up with NYC and ready to go see the world a bit. Having done so, to some degree, I came back to 184 in the summer of 2000 to take a look. It was gone, a vacant lot, and the way was guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. No, just kidding about the angel.
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