Sunday, September 14, 2008

“Oh, God, we’re living in a hell that I can’t even begin to describe!”

That's Arthur Nersesian, the 49-year-old playwright, poet and novelist, talking about the changes in his home neighborhood of the East Village. He's the subject of an entertaining profile in the Times today.

Unlike many New Yorkers who inhabited the East Village of the 1980s, Mr. Nersesian seemed to remember every aspect of that gritty and often dangerous time with fondness. Even as he described the endless parade of prostitutes down East 12th Street or the bonfires set by the homeless in Tompkins Square Park, there was a palpable tenderness to his voice.
“There was a sense of community there,” Mr. Nersesian said. “I couldn’t walk down the street without saying hello to someone. You’d see Allen Ginsberg all over the place, and you’d see the other Beats.
“I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Beats, but there was an exemplary quality to the artist as citizen. You think about artists today in our society, and they’re kind of removed. You don’t really know them. When Ginsberg died, a definitive quality from the East Village — at least from my East Village — was gone.”
Perhaps inevitably, the East Village of today, with its fashionable bars and restaurants and its gleaming glass towers, fills him with despair. “Oh, God, we’re living in a hell that I can’t even begin to describe!” Mr.
Nersesian said mournfully that day at the diner
. “It’s amazing how memory really does become a kind of curse. If I was just coming to the city today, I’d probably think, ‘Oh, this is a really interesting place,’ but it’s trying to tell people, ‘You know, there was a war fought here, a strange economic, cultural battle that went on, and I saw so many wonderful people lost among the casualties.’ ”

Also from the article:

In his 1992 play “Rent Control,” Mr. Nersesian incorporated an experience he had when he returned to the office tower that had replaced his childhood apartment.
“I tried to go to the exact same space,” he recalled, “and it turned out to be the romance division of Random House or something. I walked in and the secretary said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I think I tried to convey to her that this was where I lived for the first 10 years of my life; this space here was where I was bathed in the sink. And she looked at me like I was a nut.”

[Image: Andrew Henderson/The New York Times]

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