Karen Lillis first met the writer and poet Richard Leck nearly five years ago. And in a rather short amount of time, he made a profound impact on her life.
"Richard was a really positive, steady presence in my life... Among other things — like good life advice from someone who had survived 75 years — he embodied and remembered a New York I was really interested in, a bohemian place people came together to make," Lillis told me in an e-mail. Lillis has since published Leck's work on her Words Like Kudzu Press in Pittsburgh.
Leck, a longtime East Village resident, passed away of heart disease on Dec. 19.
First, some background on Leck's life from his obituary in The Village Voice:
He was drafted to go to the Korean War in 1951, but deferred his service to attend New York University’s Journalism School. During this time, he also reported for the New Jersey Observer. He served in the Army in peacetime from 1956 to 1958, training at Fort Dix and working in Westchester.
In the 1960s, Leck was a habitué of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, frequenting Cafe Figaro, The Limelight and The Commons, but especially Cafe Feenjon. He mingled inside and outside of the coffeehouses with such figures as Yoko Ono; Shel Silverstein; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Feenjon owner Manny Dworman; poet Taylor Mead; offbeat radio show host Long John Nebel; actor Darren McGavin; and painter Yukiko Katsura, among others.
He said of that time, “I didn’t write in those days — I just listened. I just took it all in.”
Leck worked a variety of odd jobs, often retaining a bohemian’s preference for the low-key lifestyle to a regular day job. He did the books for a retailer, he managed an antique store, he sold goods on the street, and he worked with Jewish children.
In recent years, he was a regular customer at Neptune Diner on First Ave., at St. Mark’s Bookshop and at Junior’s on the Fulton Mall, in Brooklyn.
Without any living relatives, Leck was to be buried in Potter's Field. However, Lillis and other friends reached out to Graham Rayman at The Village Voice, who then helped cut through the bureaucracy. Leck was buried in a modest military service at Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island on Jan. 23.
Lillis will host a memorial reading for Leck at the Bowery Poetry Club on Saturday, May 9 from 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. It will be called "Praise Day Reading for Richard Leck." Free admission. Several writers will read from Leck's poems and excerpts from his memoir, "Jumped, Fell, or Was Pushed."
Here, Lillis talked to me about first meeting Leck and his feelings about life and the East Village.
You met Richard while you were working in the St. Mark's Bookshop. What do you remember about that? What were your first impressions?
Lillis: I was working the register, and Richard came up and opened that book, "The Little Black and White Book of Film Noir." He started reading some of the one-liners to me in an exaggerated accent and telling me about the movies they came from. I came right back with some quotes because I'm a film noir buff myself — it really surprised him that someone half his age knew these movies. So, he just kept talking to me.
I immediate felt familiar with him — he was both a familiar Village type — open to meeting people, very idiosyncratic, ready to give you a piece of his mind. And also a familiar Irish-American type, very entertaining and psychologically smart, very funny with a Vaudeville sensibility. He reminded me a lot of my paternal grandfather.
After that, Richard would come back to the store to talk to me, or we'd go for coffee. It wasn't long before I started compulsively taking notes whenever he talked.
What do you think inspired him about living in the East Village?
Lillis: He liked the anything-goes quality, the creativity and the street life. He liked being able to meet sympatico people, artistic types. He liked not feeling restricted the way he did as a schoolboy.
In his obit for the Voice, Graham Rayman described Richard as "one of that disappearing class of people who make the neighborhood more colorful and more interesting than the yuppie scum who invade this sacred ground and drive up the rents." Did Richard share with you his feelings on the present-day East Village?
Lillis: [Laughs] Yes, Richard shared his feelings on the topic — early and often. He recalled the East Village from when it was "The East Side," and his acquaintances drifted over there to do drugs in the "shooting galleries." This was in the 60s. He said it wasn't the "East Village" until the realtors wanted to sell it, and I think he felt it just kept going in the wrong direction from there. I mean, it was still the Village and unlike anything else, but now he saw the young women who spent hundreds of dollars on their purse dogs' wardrobes, he saw cybercafes where no one talked to each other, he saw bohemian style replaced by adults in sweatpants, he saw people so busy they sped by him at a Manhattan pace, he saw landlords renovating buildings for the worse — over and over — only to jack up prices. He saw young people so worried about money and rent that they couldn't enjoy art or life just for the pleasure of it.
He talked a lot about the glass and steel skyscrapers going up all over the Village. He hated the glass and steel buildings! He liked to talk about the huge windows — "That's not a window, darling, that's a wall!" He said the people living in them must feel like they owned everything they could see. He preferred wood and brick; to him the glass and steel represented the opposite of a home, they just represented coldness and greed, and an imperial mindset.
At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiographical novel. Will any of this be released?
Lillis: Yes, one section of it already has been published in the zine, Go Metric (Issue 22), and more will be, with luck. Several excerpts will be read at the memorial reading. The book wasn't actually a novel but a memoir, working title, "Jumped, Fell, or Was Pushed" — from an adage they used to teach him in his NYU journalism program in the 1950s. Richard liked to refer to the book as comedy-sociology. The book is his life stories from the 1930s through at least the 1980s. It starts out in Jersey City and moves into the New York phase. The Depression, World War II, Mayor Hague, the Army, the Village coffeehouses of the 60s. We were working on the book together — he was telling me the stories and I was writing them down and helping shape them — I wanted to capture his voice and his cadence, and his humor. I have two years worth of material from talking to him once a week, so I believe I have enough to finish it. I may ask his closest friend, Frances, to help me fill in some gaps — she'd been close with him since the late 80s. And I'm trying to get more excerpts of the book published along the way.
Can you talk a little bit about the efforts to make sure that he received a proper burial?
Lillis: Navigating the different city agencies and the misinformation involved was disheartening and very stressful — but some individuals worked very hard to make a proper burial happen, and that was pretty amazing to see. It took a village to bury a Villager! There were many points when we thought the whole thing would go bust and Richard was going to end up in Potter's Field — we couldn't find a next of kin, we didn't have money, we were running out of time, we didn't have help from the VA — they were very rude and dismissive. I felt very overwhelmed working on this from Pittsburgh where I relocated, and Frances was going to different agencies on foot but getting doors slammed in her face. I was just determined that a U.S. veteran should not be ignored in this way, so I kept going up the food chain for leverage — writing to city politicians, then congressmen; organizing email campaigns and getting bloggers involved. Finally I started writing to newspapers, and Graham Rayman at the Village Voice was the only one who responded in due time. First he made some key phone calls to stall the march to Potter's Field. Then he blogged the story, and a few HOURS after he posted it, the Mayor's Office called Frances to say they were taking care of a military burial. The power of journalism — and public shaming — cannot be underestimated!
I learned three things I would pass on: 1.) Everyone should write a will right now, and artists should write down who they want to do what with their art/manuscripts/publishing rights, etc. Get it notarized. 2.) You're allowed to bury your friend if there's no next of kin or a will, you just can't cremate him or her. 3.) An articulate e-mail is now officially more powerful than phone or face time, unless you're someone important.
What do you think inspired him about living in the East Village?
Lillis: I think he also liked the way he could be Manhattan anonymous sometimes, or have people to talk to when he wanted to find them — at the bookstore, the diner.
The view from the kitchen/sitting area at the Sirovich SRO on East 12th Street where Leck lived since 1993.
As Graham Rayman noted: In his poem, "Residents," Leck seemed to be referring to folks like himself when he wrote:
Let dandelions be. They break up
the monotony of the grass.