By James Maher
Name: Elinor Nauen
Occupation: Poet, Writer
Location: 5th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave
Time: 2 pm on Saturday, Nov. 15
I’ve been here since January 1977. I’m original from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Between graduation from high school in Sioux Falls and moving to New York six years later, I lived in Michigan, Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina briefly, and Maine. I also lived in a bus for a year just driving around. I got out of high school and said, ‘Oh good, nobody can tell me what to do ever again. Now I’m just going to smoke pot and do what I want.’ The most glamorous thing was driving around the country. I wanted to see America. I’ve been to 49 states.
I’m a poet. Why do people come to New York except to be an artist? I was living in the woods in Maine. I was a hippie. I didn’t quite know that the poets were here, but when I was living in Maine I met Joel Oppenheimer. He was a poet who wrote for the Voice, so somebody connected us because he didn’t drive and I was a big driver. Looking back, I realize I was sort of amusing to him, this wide-eyed, completely uneducated, eager young person. He said, ‘You should be a poet and if you’re going to be a poet you have to move to New York.’
So I took the advice. That was combined with somebody giving me a ride here spur of the moment. I had never been in a city, so I was nervous about what it was going to be like. I was here for 10 minutes and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a New Yorker now, I live here,’ and I went back to Maine and I got all my stuff. I came with my belonging in two paper bags and $100 in my pocket. I was 24.
I lived on Thompson Street for six weeks and then I came home one day and it was the last day of the month and my belongings were in two paper bags outside of the door. I had been evicted. It was very informal. So I went to the Voice and I saw these ads for students and transients up on 39th Street. I didn’t even know it was Times Square. I had only been here a few weeks. So I went up, this little girl from South Dakota, and there was this long hallway of plexiglass and it said, ‘Short stays. Up to 1-hour: $4. 1 to 4 hours: $6. Up to $24 hours…’
I didn’t know what else to do so I stayed there. They put me in this room that didn’t have a lock and there was a used condom on the mantle. I just sort of sat on the edge of the bed and said, ‘Oh no, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.’ Then the guy came up a few minutes later, really embarrassed, and he said, ‘I think you’ll be more comfortable here’ and he took me to a room that was more like a room for students. But that didn’t deter me at all. Nothing deterred me.
I loved this neighborhood since the first day I moved in. I found cheap rent [in the building above Gringer and Sons]. When I moved into that building half the apartments were vacant. The guy showed me the first one that had the toilet still in the hall. The second one had a slate tub with a flat bottom, and then he showed me the third one and he said, ‘Well there’s nothing wrong with this one.’ So I moved in and I’ve been there ever since.
My first job in New York was as a messenger, and the first day I went to a type shop for desktop publishing, everything had to be typeset, and I ended up going there practically every day until they said, ‘Oh you seem smart, now you can be our proofreader.’ All of a sudden I was a proofreader and then somebody who knew me was like, ‘We need a copy editor for two weeks for two days a week while somebody was on jury duty.’ So then I had this job and on the second week, one of the days I wasn’t there, everybody quit, so they said, ‘Do you want to be a full-time copy editor?’ So then I had a full-time job as a copy editor, which was great because I didn’t really go to college, but once you have a job nobody cares about your credentials.
I started going to St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, which was the home of the Poetry Project. That is how I started meeting people and then I got involved in readings and workshops. I’m still very involved. I’ve been there for almost 40 years now. I love seeing the people coming up and still being excited about art and poetry. But it’s so different [now] because you can’t come to New York with a $100 in your pocket anymore. I feel a tight community of the poetry project people. We’re about to have our 50th anniversary in two years.
Galway Kinnel just died and [I remember] the first thing I did the first day I came to New York was walk on Avenue C because of his famous poem, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World. I remember the fruits and vegetables for sale on the street. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this.’ Avenue C in those days was probably a block you did not want to walk on. I always felt like I had the protection of the innocence around me.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.