Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Out and About in the East Village

In this ongoing feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village or Lower East Side.

By James Maher
Name: Puma Perl
Occupation: Writer/Poet/Performer/Former Social Worker
Location: Avenue A between 4th and 5th Street
Date: 2:30 pm on Aug. 3

I’m from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. One of the things that drew me here, which drew a lot of kids, was the cheap rent. The bottom line is that I just needed somewhere to be and it seemed possible. It had nothing to with wanting to meet artists or making any kind of scene. It was more like Gravesend was death and the Lower East Side was life.

But I also remember when I was in high school, and this is probably something that drew me here, somebody took me to what turned out to be the Electric Circus and the Velvet Underground were playing. I always say that changed my life forever.

You just did not know what you were walking into. One time the super of my building on 10th Street said to me, ‘Walk me to Club 82. I gotta do a pickup,’ and I walked in and there were the New York Dolls. I was like 'What the Fuck?' You could walk into the New York Dolls, into a whole new culture that was starting, but then you’d walk the other way and Tito Puente was playing in what’s now La Plaza Cultural. There was this feeling of community. You could feel like you had everything you needed here, on every level.

My son’s father, Jon Grell, and some of my still surviving friends were in the Motherfuckers. Before I met him, he was in prison, because the Motherfuckers used to do a lot of brilliant things like load firearms into a car on Houston Street... He was a kid and he was very enamored by Sam Melville, who was a brilliant radical guy. [Melville was from another collective and not affiliated with the Motherfuckers.] But the bottom line was that there was a provocateur that nobody should have believed and somehow he got in with these guys, and there were some bombings. Jon had nothing to do with it, but they figured that he was a loudmouthed kid, we’ll turn him, so he did a couple years for basically being a young asshole. That’s his story.

Eventually I went upstate for a year because things got really hard down here. I used to get picked up for being a runaway all the time even though I wasn’t. Jon got out and his probation didn’t allow him below 96th Street. So a mutual friend brought him to outside Ithaca where I was living and that’s how I met him. Then we came back down to the city in the 1970s when his parole ended.

First I lived on this 5th-floor walkup in the back, bathtub in the kitchen, police lock. The building caught fire. My apartment was actually untouched, and I can remember there was a woman next door with two kids and it was four in the morning and I took one kid and she took the other kid and we ran through the flames down five floors. I moved next door to the 6th floor and there were adjoining roofs, so I threw my furniture over the roof.

We moved to 10th and B, and at that time we used to call Avenue B the DMZ, but it was just innate — you just did it. You walked down the middle of the street. You know, you didn’t stop doing anything. I loved 10th Street. It was this Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was this family neighborhood where if your kid fell down someone was going to pick him up – kids on the street all the time, block parties, the social club was down there. I have a million poems about 10th Street.

[Later on], I was living on 7th Street between A and B when the Nuyurican Poets Café opened, which I credit with anything I do, because it was so inclusive that even someone like me from Brooklyn, not an artist — where I grew up in Bensonhurst, it wasn’t even like you were going to the city, you were going to NEEW YOORK — so it wasn’t something that I thought was accessible to me. Everybody was going to this place for poetry - totally incredible.

It came a little later, my being able to conceive of myself as an artist, but that was the start. I mean one of the things that I did there was have a baby with the bartender a couple years later, Eddie Gomez — they knew him as Eddie Piñero, and his brother was one of the three who started the café.

My daughter read her first poem in the café when she was 4 — it was about hot dogs. Growing up with that gives you a place where you know you can go somewhere. I didn’t grow up knowing I could go somewhere. I really credit the Lower East Side, the arts, and the café [to her development]. By that time I was a single mother and I didn’t have the wherewithal to send her to college, but she came into her own.

I have a history of addiction, so when I got clean it was basically about putting a life together. I moved to Brooklyn at that time, so I wasn’t around here a lot during a certain period. I raised my kids, I went to school, and I was so amazed that I tested HIV negative that I wound up becoming a social worker. I had no education when I started, doing outreach for like $2 an hour, going into shooting galleries before this was legal, doing harm reduction.

Then I went to college, and then I became the director of social work organization for people with HIV. People I supervised were asking me for letters of recommendations so they could become social workers. So then I became a social worker — I said well I may as well do it, and I did that for 20 years.

During that time I got back, so I started putting my name on every possible list and I wound up getting Mitchell-Lama Housing on Water Street. During that time is when I really started believing in myself. I started writing. I have four solo collections of poetry, and my first book, "Belinda and Her Friends" was published in 2008 about 10th Street.

Then I wound up becoming a poetry performer with a band, Puma Perl and Friends. We have a regular show at the Bowery Electric called Puma Perl’s Pandemonium. The next show is Sept 15, the day before my birthday. It will be my five-year anniversary.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


Gojira said...

Perhaps the various Anonymi on this blog who regularly decry those of us nostalgic for a less "fabulous" (in the 21st century sense) New York will read this wonderful installment, look at the photos in the Carole Teller post in conjunction, and understand why we are so mournful at the loss of that emptier, less regulated, less rigidly structured, more historic and to-scale city, a New York for New Yorkers, not for tourists, students, and the idle rich, a city whose vibrancy was not based on money and luxury, but on the way people lived their lives and the way they interacted with each other.

Yeah, no, probably not. But a girl can dream, can't she?

Anonymous said...

Brava Gojira.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the 'burbs and now that I'm here I'm just as much a part of the place as anyone else. I love my neighbors, love running into people I know on the subway platform and love the community. Things change, people change, times change. Stop trying to classify everyone into this or that and live in the now.

Anonymous said...

To anon at 1:45
YOU are the new NOW. WE are mourning over the vast makeover of an eclectic community. And it wasn't about running into someone you recognize on the subway platform.

Anonymous said...

1:45pm No one has a problem with people from the 'burbs, we have a problem with people who want to turn NYC into the 'burbs and want the city to be part of them not vice versa.

james keyes said...

shes sexy

Anonymous said...

What she (Gojira) said.

afbp said...

intriguing article.....always a bit puzzled by the evgrieve curmudgeon mantra of----'accept my viewpoint but the hell with yours!'

Anonymous said...

Brava to Puma Perl, a force of nature, a survivor, an artist and truth teller. A most amazing woman. Thanks to EV Grieve for this piece and all the stories about what's still real in the Lower East!

ninettasgold said...

Thank you, Gojira. You said it beautifully --and one can hope that some readers will understand.


I've caught a few of Puma's shows at Bowery Electric and they are a good time. I highly recommend.

Eden Bee said...

Love Puma!

Anonymous said...

I have worked on St.Marks Place for 47 years. I knew Jon Grell briefly in the early 1970's and liked him. I passed by a tastefully stenciled "Free Jon Grell" sign near St. Marks and 1st Ave for over a decade. The following is from a 1974 book: Chief! by Albert A. Seedman and Peter Hellman.

A fourth accused conspirator, a seventeen-year-old RAT staffer named Jonathan Grell, who was carrying a loaded .38 revolver when arrested at his parents' home in the Bronx, also went free on bail.

Best wishes to Puma and the people lucky enough to be part of her life's
journey. Gojira said it best.

Puma Perl said...

I didn't realize there were comments posted and I don't know if the person who remembered the Free Jon Grell stamps will read this. Probably not, but it's worth a try to say I remember those stamps on the wall, too. His friend Paul Samberg, another older brother type who also wrote for the Rat, probably did most of them. Thanks for your post. Not many remember, and it's very meaningful to me that you do. Thanks also for your good wishes.

Anonymous said...

Puma..5:49 posting again
The one thing I left out of my first post was that I, like many young people
in the EV, confess to being a naïve well meaning harmless asshole. Doing
stupid reckless things that could have killed me or put me in jail for
decades. Never harmed a soul except myself... and I got off lucky.

Even today the voice of my parents in the back of my mind:
"How could you be so stupid?"

It just comes naturally. I'm sure you know what I mean, from what I
understand from your story.

You make me smile from the heart.

Puma Perl said...

Thanks again, Anonymous. After the interview, I thought that maybe I shouldn't have called Jon an asshole, that it would be misunderstood. Glad you got it. By definition, at a certain age, time, and place, we were.