Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the Bowery: "What the hell is this?"

As Eater noted on Monday, fancy sushi chain Koi is looking to nab a liquor license for a new joint .... at the site of the now-closed Salvation Army residence at 347 Bowery. Seems about right.

The Koi news prompted me to revisit a short story written by Jack Henry Abbott titled "On the Bowery." His piece was part of an anthology titled "Low Rent: A Decade of Prose and Photographs from the Portable Lower East Side" published in 1994.

After serving 19 years in prison, Abbott arrived in Manhattan at 3 a.m. on June 6, 1981. He stayed at the Salvation Army here at 347 Bowery. Here are a few snippets of his short story:

Sitting on the corner across the street there was a man wearing filthy jeans and a tee-shirt. He needed a shave. He was sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter. There was a dirty handkerchief tied around his head. His long brown hair fell wildly about his shoulders.

He had a steel garbage can turned upside down between his legs. All its contents were in piles around him and he was beating the bottom of the garbage can with a pathetic vengenace. He was using his fists and the palms of his hands, alternately. I stared at him for awhile, then my gaze passed along and took in the immediate environment. Debris was everywhere in the street and sidewalks. Third Avenue traffic had not yet started. The streets were deserted.

Then I noticed a body laying stretched out on the sidewalk against a rundown building. And then another and another and another. The bodies of sleeping derelicts were scattered liberally around the sidewalks and on the stoops on buildings. It took my by surprise. My mind was blank. I finally thought: "What the hell is this?"

One morning someone came in half carrying a man in his late twenties. The man being helped was over six feet tall. He helped him sit on the cushion of the naugahyde couch I was sitting on in front of the fan. It was exceptionally hot that summer.

The man was filthy, his clothes were torn. His right pants leg was bursting at the seams. He had been lying in the gutter down the street for three days before someone decided to help him into the Salvation Army. From what they could get out of him, he had been wandering in the street one night and a car had struck him. He had crawled between two parked cars. His right leg was broken. It had been bleeding.


You likely know what later happened to Abbott, who previously had received help from Norman Mailer to get "In the Belly of the Beast" published. Abbott's story has been told many times. Here's a piece from -- why not? -- Wikipedia: "On the morning of July 18 (1981), just six weeks after getting out of prison, Jack Abbott went to a small cafe called the Binibon in Manhattan. He clashed with 22-year-old Richard Adan, son-in-law of the restaurant's owner, over Adan's telling him the restroom was for staff only. The short-tempered Abbott stabbed Adan in the chest, killing him."

In an entry on the Bowery and LES, Brian Rose wrote the following:

I lived around the corner on East 4th Sreet at the time, and ate in Binibon the day of the murder. I was unaware that anything had happened. Nowadays one would expect to find the crime scene taped off, people milling about pointing and murmering, and, perhaps, the beginnings of an informal memorial of flowers. In those days, it was just another murder on the Lower East Side, though once the connection to Mailer was made, the story became national news.

For further reading:
Writer murders writer in the East Village (Ephemeral New York)

For more on the Salvation Army residence hall here, please read: No Salvation (Jeremiah's Vanishing NY)


NYCDreamin said...

Thanks for the story, Grieve - never heard about that one before - I'm gonna get a copy of that "Low Rent" book ASAP - sounds like a great read.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks, NYCD.... Many noted writers in this collection — Grace Paley, Hubert Selby and David Wojnarowicz, among many others both known and unknown.

Bowery Boogie said...

great juxtaposition of the current scene with the stories of the past. polar opposites.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

Damn, that made me yearn for home. Home being the LES in the 1980s, not the goddamn drunken cupcakeland I live in now.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

It was interesting to follow his 'unknown' flight from NYC after he killed that waiter, seems he was spotted on a bus and they picked him up in New Orleans. Where else can a killer disappear to? Or so he thought...

Karen Lillis said...

That's some brilliant blogging, EV.

Ken Mac said...

I'm heading to the Bowery right now to rouse that last homeless guy from his sleep. Trendy folk need that bench.

Anonymous said...

You know, call me crazy, but romanticizing a time when bums lay by the dozens in the gutter and people got hit by cars and received no help for days seems a bit ass-backward to me. Sure, the Bowery and the LES have become more sterile and gentrified, and it sucks. But the bad old days were no picnic, either.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Anonynmous.

It's interesting to log the changes over time, and EV has done a very good job of logging these changes in an artful way.

But I shed no tear for a depraved, deprived and derelict time.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

Oh, I shed many a tear for depravity, deprivation, and dereliction. Were you actually here, anon? It was one hell of a great time.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

Another comment for Anon: You don't love depravity? How very sad.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Powerful stuff...even moreso as you've sprinkled photos of the current scene throughout the narrative.

My first night in NYC was on the Bowery. I was kicked out of the White House for not having ID. When you're alone and homeless on the Bowery, where do you go from there?


And so I did, but I keep one foot in the gutter as a reminder of how many people struggled to make it here and how easy it is to lose everything.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks for sharing, Goggla.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Goggla. Good for you.