by Jacob Margolies
Scene I: Bob Ward
At the time, I was squatting in a building on East 8th Street that I and a few like-minded folks had discovered two years earlier. The moment I saw it, I’d known it was the place for me. Friends told me I was crazy moving into a neighborhood that looked like it had been hit by an A-bomb. But I saw wide open spaces and possibility. A near empty full-length city block with just five remaining structures punctuating the open landscape. The rest was dirt and debris and wild vegetation growing up high through the cracks in the sidewalk. There were roosters and chickens strutting about, walking into and out of a little hen house on an otherwise vacant lot. It was the new frontier, untamed, waiting to be settled and reclaimed. I’m not going to tell you it was the Garden of Eden, but by 1984 we’d fixed up our home–put in new flooring, insulation, built a staircase, patched the roof and even tapped into Con Ed for electricity. We were pioneers. Buildings all around us were falling down and the people who’d once lived in them had disappeared. But we were building something up. Pioneers, that’s what we were.
1984. That was the year we got a new neighbor. He said his name was Werner Von Hegel and, most improbably, he opened an art gallery on our block. Everyone in our squat called him Hegel, except for Bob the communist who called him the German and would go on about how once the galleries come, the bourgeoisie are just around the corner. Our new neighbor had transformed a long vacant storefront into something shiny. He named his gallery Rubble. It was clean and austere. Oak floors, track lighting, glossy white walls. “Where do you think he’s getting the money?” Bob the communist asked me. Hegel told me he wanted his gallery in the most desolate place imaginable. “Great art arises out of extreme circumstances,” he told me.
Hegel had big plans for a grand opening exhibition and asked if I’d help him find some kids from the projects for his spectacle. The inaugural show was to present the works of Simon McGreevy and Benjamin Chester, whom Hegel described as the New Loyalists. For the night of the big opening party, Hegel wanted me to help him organize a stick-up of his patrons. “We must give our guests the shock of the ghetto. They are coming down here for a thrill. Think of the money we can make,” he exclaimed.
When he got excited, Hegel’s face turned red and he giggled. He proposed that we split the take. For putting the party together and inviting the guests, Hegel would take half, and I could divide what remained between myself and whomever I recruited for his stick-up job. I told him it was ridiculous, but he didn’t easily take no for an answer. “What about that friend of yours? The one always talking about redistributing wealth, the one who looks like he could use a shower. Maybe he could help,” he suggested. “Or how about that Puerto Rican kid always hanging around your house, he must have some friends, no?” Simon McGreevy and Benjamin Chester had agreed to allow several of their paintings to be confiscated during the incident. Thanks to the publicity, the value of their remaining works would multiply. Hegel was certain of it. When I suggested that he go look himself for kids to hold up his place, Hegel acted insulted. “I do not associate with gangsters,” he told me. “My gallery is called Rubble, not Rabble,” he declared.
Hegel introduced me to the new loyalists. McGreevy grew up on a farm in Vermont. He was tall, blue-eyed, with a flat nose and receding chin. We got on right away, talking about hunting and fishing, two country boys in the big city. I never did find out where his boyfriend Chester was from.
McGreevy could go on for hours about the Revolutionary War and the glory of the British Empire. It was hard to tell if he was serious. He told me New York’s hard-working landowners had wanted nothing to do with the revolutionary riff-raff, and that the sympathies of Manhattan’s merchants and tradesmen were with the mother country. McGreevy wanted to make sure I understood that in 1776 the traitorous colonialists in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn had got their asses kicked all over New York. He’d recount how British commander Sir William Howe led his fleet through the Staten Island narrows and moved his troops into Brooklyn. The Americans at the garrison at what is today Flatbush Avenue near Prospect Park turned tail and ran. The rebel army retreated to Brooklyn Heights and fled across the East River. After another battle, Washington’s forces retreated further to Harlem Heights. By the fall, the British controlled all of New York. During the glorious years that followed, displaced loyalists from the colonies poured into the city. But mistakes were made. Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, a day that will live in infamy, marked the beginning of New York’s long decline. “Look at this city now, filth and decay everywhere,” McGreevy exclaimed. Shouting in an unnecessarily loud voice, he told me his work honored the memory of those who remained true to the British crown.
McGreevy’s collaborator Benjamin Chester almost never talked. The two of them were subletting an apartment that they were slowly taking apart. Over the course of the summer, they had been knocking down walls and removing fixtures. McGreevy said they were deconstructing a piece of New York’s history. They liked to dress up as red coats, and attended Revolutionary War battle reenactments held up and down the eastern seaboard. One night Benjamin Chester showed me his collection of vintage shotguns.
Their paintings depict Revolutionary War battle scenes, something you might expect to see in the home decorating section of a bargain department store, but with a semiotic twist. Odd signs and text abound. Aztec symbols, signs of the horoscope, biblical verses, traffic signals, and exotic wildlife. McGreevy said they variously signified treachery, valor, sacrifice and doom. Then there was the McGreevy and Chester interpretation of Washington Crossing the Delaware that included a pigeon shitting on George Washington’s head.
At the big opening, Simon McGreevy is pacing about, dressed up in his red coat garb. But Benjamin Chester is nowhere to be seen. Invited guests show up in the early evening, arriving in town cars and taxis. Astonished chauffeurs, observing the empty lots, collapsed buildings, mounds of garbage and the wandering chickens, wait warily next to their cars. I walk in and out of the exhibition making small talk with the drivers on the street. My attempts to strike up conversations with the gallery guests are entirely unsuccessful.
At the height of the evening, a crowd of about one hundred has gathered. The wine and conversation are flowing. No one seems to be paying attention to the paintings. As the clock strikes eight, a flushed looking Benjamin Chester marches into the gallery, holding a shotgun. Swinging the firearm over his head, he screams at a couple standing in his path to get out of his way and strides up to his painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Stopping ten feet away, Chester takes careful aim and blows the father of our country to smithereens. People scream at the sound of the gun going off. A middle-aged woman appears to be bleeding heavily from a scalp wound. Hegel appears from a back room wearing a powdered white wig. Eyeing him, Chester raises the gun again and takes aim. Hegel lets out a shriek and runs out on to the street, turning the corner on Avenue C. Chester chases after him, holding his firearm in one hand and an empty wine glass in the other. A set of wooden teeth lies on the street just outside Rubble’s front door. People rush out of the gallery, looking for their drivers.
Scene II: Eddie Rivera
Popping up on every corner. Inhabiting slum tenement storefronts. Over one hundred of them. I counted. All within the space of a year. It happened so fast.
You never see anyone going into them. How do you think they pay the rent? Sometimes I think the galleries are a plot by the landlords. Showing off the wildest most bizarre stuff imaginable to try to terrify the Puerto Ricans. Putting some black magic in the windows to scare the shit out of us. They already burnt down half the neighborhood. Now they’re trying to drive us crazy. I’ve seen some wild stuff. Paintings of barking dogs, photos of naked men in dog collars, life-sized 3D models of American Indians smoking the peace pipe with angels, vacuum cleaners encased in Lucite. I’m not making this up.
First it was drug pushers, and now it’s art dealers. These are the neighborhood’s twin hustles. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a painting as much as the next person. Every day I walk past brightly colored wall murals that tell the stories of this neighborhood’s life. Declarations about rent strikes, warnings about the evils of crack, portraits of Jesus Christ and Che Guevara, tributes to imprisoned Puerto Rican freedom fighters, memorials to children who died too young. Spray paint images. The craftsmanship is impressive.
But these tiny gallery spaces are always empty. Is there anyone looking at what’s inside? And the things in their windows, it’s like there’s a secret code. I don’t get it. A shoe repair place, a fruit and vegetable stand, a hardware store, those are things that serve a purpose. Even a liquor store. But a collection of hollowed out television sets surrounded by Ken and Barbie dolls?
Just because I’m not crazy about the art though didn’t mean I wasn’t going to take advantage of an opportunity. Hey, this is the 80s. Trickle-down, right? President Reagan laid it down for everyone. Those storefront spaces had to be made pretty. The new people wanted them fixed up fast. I have a van, and soon me and my brother were working knocking down walls and hauling out trash to a dump in Brooklyn. Once they got to know us, we were getting jobs to actually fix those spaces up. The ones who hired us paid in cash. It was pretend you know what you’re doing and work hard until you get it right. Sanding wood floors, putting up partitions, painting. Figuring it out as we went along.
We’d knock on doors and introduce ourselves. Door-to-door like a Fuller Brush salesman. Built it up to where we have a little business going. One storefront after another. Rubble, Devastation, The Garrison, Walden Pond, Gracie Mansion. The gallery gang is all jokey with the names. It’s one of their ways of letting you know that they’re better than you.
Of course, we have competition. Everybody’s hustling. But nobody can beat us on price. Hey, money doesn’t grow on trees. What surprised me was a lot of those gallery owners were cheap. Didn’t want a licensed contractor. Didn’t want to bother with the permits. Just do it fast. It was a guerilla operation. A few try not to pay what they promised, but we always get things straightened out.
I’m not complaining. Earning more money in a week than what I’d make in a month pushing racks of dresses on 7th Avenue. I even got invited to the openings. So that’s it. For all my complaining, I’m working for these people. But they are strange. No children. No old people. No abuelos. A tribe of young grown-ups cast out of their homes. Or maybe they were escaping something bad. And this is where they chose to come. It’s an episode of The Twilight Zone.
So there’s a scene here now, and I’m on the edge of it. My neighborhood is the nation’s funhouse mirror. President Carter visited the South Bronx. Now we’re waiting for our visit from Ronald Reagan and the First Lady. Nancy can tour Avenue B and instruct the junkies lining up for fixes on the nervous break-down street to “Just Say No.” She can gaze with watery-eyed compassion and listen attentively to their addict tall tales. The First Lady will speak harshly to the street dealers and lovingly to their victims. And just around the corner, Ronnie can reprise his days as spokesman for General Electric. There are vacuum cleaners encased in Lucite that need selling. We can learn a lot from our president.
Scene III: Rabbi Jacob Kelman
Rabbi Kelman called up District Leader Kirschenbaum to complain about the gigantic pig that had appeared on the side of the building across the street from his school. The exhibition of papier-mâché hogs, titled “A Police Parable,” was bad enough, he told Kirschenbaum. Didn’t these wisenheimers know that only a few years ago a couple of lunatics had shot and killed two officers on that very block? One of those cops had been a young Negro gentleman who happened to spend his free time playing ball with kids in the neighborhood. The show was an insult to his memory. But the pig, rising up three stories high on the side of the building housing the Devastation Gallery, was more than an insult. It was a deliberate provocation. Half a block from a yeshiva these people, whoever they were, had painted a huge pig that his children had to walk past every day. When he’d complained, the smiling woman who owned Devastation told him no offense was intended. “It has absolutely nothing to do with your school. Please don’t take it the wrong way. We’re using humor to raise questions,” she told him. When the Rabbi told her that this explanation was unacceptable, she started saying something about police brutality and free speech.
The Rabbi had also seen the gallery just a block away. A German was running it, and the Rabbi had been told that one of the artists whose pictures were being shown there had stormed into the place shooting off a shotgun and nearly killing a woman. Gigantic pigs and bohemian gunslingers had invaded the Lower East Side.
“Don’t be a putz. Talk to the Buildings Department and have them paint over that thing. Do your job,” the Rabbi told Kirschenbaum. The District Leader told the Rabbi nothing could be done about a pig on a wall. This Rabbi wouldn’t give him the time of day normally. But now, because of this nonsense he was supposed to jump into action? “I am sorry, but I am not the Commissar of Cultural Affairs. You should be happy you have some people with money moving onto your block. Even if they are weirdos,” Kirschenbaum said.
Rabbi Kelman, although he was a very old man, still took a long late-afternoon walk every day after the students had been dismissed from his yeshiva. It was for his health, but also to satisfy his curiosity. He’d been around long enough to feel proprietary about the streets where he’d spent his entire life. The Lower East Side, despite all the upheavals, would always be a little village to him. Passing the galleries that had mysteriously started appearing, the Rabbi found himself transported back into time. For some reason, these apparitions of whimsy that had sprung up stirred memories of the neighborhood fifty years back. He recalled immigrant painters with sketch pads and beautiful women he’d courted by taking them to the theaters that once lined 2nd Avenue. He thought about the Yiddish King Lear and how this neighborhood was his crumbling kingdom. Now on these same streets, amidst those ghosts, he felt a surprising sensation in his throat when he looked in the windows at the latest installations. The things he saw in those galleries had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his world. So he was taken aback at how annoyed it all made him. Looking at these newcomers and their artifacts, the old Rabbi realized that part of what he was feeling was envy. So much youth and beauty. It occurred to him that tucked away somewhere inside all the foolishness that these youngsters might actually come up with something brilliant, just down the block from his school. And if they did, he would have absolutely nothing to do with it.
The yeshiva he’d presided over for 25 years was the last Jewish day school on Avenue B. It wasn’t going to survive much longer. For the past few summers there’d been break-ins. Junkies, looking for something to sell, took anything they could find—school supplies, plumbing fixtures, furniture, toilet paper rolls, even Torah scrolls. Twenty years ago his school had over 500 students. Now he was down to 120.
He was invisible to the newcomers. The hat and the clothes and especially his age marked him as unworthy of their attention. His feet ached when he walked. Hiss doctor had told him his blood pressure was off the charts. There were days he felt disoriented and confused. After 60 years in the neighborhood, the Rabbi would sometimes get lost on his walks.
On this day’s circuitous journey, he found himself in front of the shoe store owned by Moe Altman. Moe’s children had gone to his school. He’s known the man forever. Today, when he peers through the store door, the Adidas, Rockports and platform shoes are missing. Moe must be changing inventory. And the window display isn’t the usual sneakers on the left side and dress shoes on right. Instead there’s a life-size diorama of American Indians and angels with gold colored halos. Mounted on the rear wall is a message in large burnt orange-red letters, “They stole our land but couldn’t crush our spirit.” And there are more words below. Some nonsense about the Great Spirit and streams and pines and cedars. The Rabbi wonders for a moment if it is an advertisement for moccasins. He could use a pair of comfortable shoes right now because his feet are killing him. Across the street is an abandoned school. He remembers it as a glorious building, but today it’s in advanced decay. The mansard roof is missing, the arched Venetian windows are all gone, and garbage is piled out front. No children outside this broken school. He wonders about his students. He loves those kids. Even the bad ones. What will become of them? One of the Indians in the diorama is holding his penis. What the hell is Moe thinking? Children are going to see this. Where is Moe anyway and what in G-d’s name has happened to his store? Is this even his store? A woman with blue eyes comes out of the door and smiles at him. “You look like you could use a glass of wine. Why don’t you come in?” she says.
Jacob Margolies grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and is a journalist and a lawyer. His stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in English-language publications all over the world.