The first time I ever went to the Lower East Side of Manhattan I was in my late teens. Of course, living on Long Island, I had been in the city numerous times, especially with my grandmother Helen who loved the theater. I remember even back then (in the early to mid-80’s) feeling like such a big shot every time we took the subway or bus to get somewhere, and I still find it extremely liberating to be able to get around NYC via the subway. As almost every New Yorker will tell you, the city was quite different back then—there was a grittiness to it, particularly Times Square, that I had never been exposed to growing up in the lily-white, middle-class suburbs of Long Island.
My grandmother, whose parents were from Germany, grew up in Brooklyn (it’s where my mom was born). To say she was a “tough cookie” would be an understatement. I remember one trip into NYC in particular, a man grabbed my ass while we were riding on the bus. Like most busses in NYC, this one was extremely crowded so we were all crammed together like sardines. Every woman knows the difference between an accidental brush versus a full-on ass grab, and this was most definitely the latter. When I told my grandmother what had happened she hauled off and belted the guy while unleashing a fury of obscenities at him that would’ve made even the randiest of sailors blush. I always knew my grandmother was “not one to be fucked with,” but that day on the bus the deal was sealed—my grandmother was a complete badass in my eyes.
After the show that night (Dreamgirls, if anyone cares), we were walking down a poorly-lit street headed back to the lot when I noticed two men walking towards us. As a kid (and even now), I was always super friendly. I remember smiling as I made eye contact with one of the men who in turn looked directly at me—keep in mind I was only about 12 or 13—and proceeded to ask, “How much?” Not yet worldly, I was legitimately confused by the question so I replied with a polite, “Excuse me, sir?” I glanced over at my grandmother who had a look of pure disgust on her face. She did not physically assault the man (this time), but she did proceed to viscerally neuter him with her words, right there on the sidewalk in front of his friend. As he skulked away Helen continued with her tirade of obscenities. I was fairly certain that if this man had the chance to do it all over again he would have chosen to walk on the other side of the street just to avoid any kind of altercation with Helen.
My grandmother had a favorite restaurant in NYC (somewhere up in the 50’s) called “La Fondue.” I should have fonder memories of La Fondue then I do, but sadly I don’t. It was a really dark restaurant with strong smells of old cheese seeping out of the wood paneling. It wasn’t until many years later, after they changed the name and my husband brought me there the night he proposed, that I learned they had chocolate fondue on the menu. My mother and grandmother always ordered the stinky cheese stuff, and to this day I still feel cheated about it. After my grandmother got sick there were no more trips to the theater, or La Fondue for that matter. We never went into the city as a family again.
While in high school, I was working at a local pizzeria and had become really good friends with the owner’s daughter who was around ten years older than me. She loved the city, particularly the Village, so there were many nights we would drive in after work, drink cheap bottles of champagne out of paper cups, and cruise the city streets in her Nissan Pulsar. I was way underage, but every once in a while we would find a spot that would actually let me in.
One night our favorite band the Ramones was playing at the Ritz in the East Village, but sadly we didn’t have tickets. We were looking for a scalper when we met a guy who said he was on the guest list and could get us both in for $50 each (it should be noted that one of New York City’s charms is that no good deed happens for free, everyone has a side hustle). To this day I swear the guy was the Ramones artistic designer Arturo Vega, but admittedly I do have the tendency to be wrong about such things. Either way, we took “Arturo” up on his offer and he made good on his promise and got us into the club. Sadly, we only heard two songs. I have no idea which ones (anyone who has seen the Ramones live knows what I mean) but it was definitely only two.
Denise was livid and said, “We’re not paying $100 to hear two songs,” and proceeded to drag me around the Ritz looking for “Arturo.” Lo-and-behold, we found him. I remember being very impressed by her moxie as she positioned her face as close as she possibly could to his without touching it, saying “You have two choices: give us half of our money back or buy us drinks.” He opted for the drinks, and by the end of the night we were laughing and joking like old friends. Even though we didn’t make the entire show, like most of our nights in NYC, we left that night with a hell of a story. I am happy to report that not soon after, we were able to catch a full Ramones show, even making it in time to see the opening band the Lunachicks.
Not soon after all of this, I had “a thing” with another fellow lover of the Ramones who was a drummer from a local band here on LI. Brian was in his early twenties and from a town called Brentwood. The first time I saw him (at a party at his house) it was like someone hit me in the head with a frying pan. My best friend was dating one of his friends, which is how I ended up there. While Brentwood was geographically not far, it was a world away from Smithtown. It was the kind of place where if you left your car unlocked for any stretch of time you would almost certainly get robbed (which actually happened to me months later while staying with him).
Brian was one of the sexiest things I had ever seen live in person—long black hair, lanky build, and he was in a “glam band,” so he sometimes wore eyeliner. Imagine if Keith Richards and Dee Dee Ramone had a love child; that would be Brian. He even spoke with a similar cadence and laughed just like Dee Dee (who was and will always be my favorite Ramone). Our mutual love for the Ramones was actually one of the things that brought us together. So many summer days we would take his Jeep out to Smith’s Point and listen to Ramones Mania while making out in the sand. To this day I cannot listen to “Beat on the Brat” without thinking of Brian.
My attraction to him was exactly as strong as you would imagine a rebellious teenage girl’s (with daddy issues) attraction would be for a legit “bad boy” drummer. He was different though; he never treated me with disrespect and was legitimately kind and thoughtful. On our first date he took me to a place in Port Jefferson called Danfords. It was and still is kind of a fancy place. I remember buying a special dress just for the occasion—it was a short, tight, little black tank number that had several silver buckles running up and down the sides of it. Brian wore his signature black fedora, long hair wild beneath it, with his tattoos out for all to see (at the time tattoos were not yet mainstream, especially in places like Danfords). There we sat, among all the rich, stick-up-the-ass fuddy-duddies of the North Shore, eating our filets and laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Laughing was the one thing that our relationship was never in short supply of. There were nights we would lay in his waterbed—I know, I know, so cliché—laughing for hours on end. Aside from the sex and drugs we were partaking in, we were like children, unabashedly silly together. We would watch episodes of Davey and Goliath and Gumby (which both came on in the middle of the night), laughing so hard that tears rolled down our faces.
I’ve had a lot of relationships in my life. Most bad, some good, but only about three, (not counting my husband Mike) that I would consider to be “formative.” Those relationships changed not only who I was at the time but who I would become in the future—in short, who I am now. My relationship with Brian definitely falls into the latter category. Sure, he broke my heart, maybe even twice; but the first time he broke it, it wasn’t over a woman, per se. The short version is that he was a heroin addict.
Nobody did heroin where I grew up. We drank like hardened alcoholics, we did blow like Tony Montana, but we never did H. I didn’t know one single person from my HS at the time who did. By the time I realized how much of a problem it was for him it was too late. I was done, head over heels, whatever, but the truth is, had I known prior it would not have stopped me. That was the kind of girl I was, but also a testament to how strongly I was drawn to him. The person. The heroin was just a mere inconvenience. There is no attraction like the attraction to something or someone who is “dangerous,” and let’s face it, nobody is more dangerous than a musician and nothing is as dangerous as heroin.
One night while in his room Brian was getting “dope sick.” He wanted me to stay in Brentwood while he drove to the city to get “straight,” but I refused and said I wanted to go with him. He was hesitant at first but didn’t have the energy to fight me on it. I remember driving over the Williamsburg Bridge and heading to some place that he referred to as “Alphabet City.” He used to cop from a guy named Albie who lived on Ave D. I had met Albie once or twice through my and Brian’s tattoo artist “Tattoo Mike.” Mike actually referred to him as his cousin but I don’t believe they were really related.
We were driving really slowly down Houston and there was a cop stationed at the corner who was stopping cars that were coming into the neighborhood (one of the things that Brian neglected to tell me was that this was commonplace on the LES). He rolled down the window and told the cop, in the politest manner, that we were on our way to his cousin’s apartment (I guess this guy Albie had a lot of cousins). The cop either bought it or just didn’t care, because he waved us right in.
Being protective, Brian wouldn’t let me come into the tenement with him. He insisted that I stay in the car, doors locked, and made me swear that no matter what I would not get out. I promised him I would stay put and watched as he practically ran into the building. Anyone who has ever been with a heroin addict knows that at this point I was not just waiting for him to buy drugs; I was waiting for him to buy drugs, shoot the drugs, smoke a cigarette, and hopefully not nod off as I sat in a relatively nice Jeep on Ave D in the middle of the night in the 1980’s.
The block was pretty quiet with the exception of one homeless man who reminded me of one of the Old Salt statues my grandmother had on the mantle. He was milling about some piles of garbage several feet in front of the car. I didn’t want him to see me so I was slumped down in the seat. I kept my eyes fixed on him, my head just barely peeking out over the dashboard like some freaked out, paranoid version of “Kilroy.” I was afraid that if he thought the car was empty he may try to break into it. At some point I realized that the “Old Salt” had made me, so I took my chances, sat up, and opted for an “I’m not afraid of you” glare—and that’s when things got weird.
Instead of moving on to the next pile of garbage, the man decided to walk directly in front of the Jeep and take his penis out. I was horrified but I was also a captive audience. There was no way I was getting out of that car, and even if I wanted to, where was I going to go? I most certainly did not want to see what I saw but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for fear of where he may go or what his next move would be. So we both sat there for what felt like an eternity, him awkwardly pleasuring himself just a few feet away, me trying to send telepathic messages to Brian to hurry the fuck up.
I am sure the whole thing only lasted a few minutes, but to this day they can still be counted as the longest few minutes of my life. Finally, Brian came out of the building and the horny, homeless man yanked up his pants and walked off like nothing happened. As Brian got into the car I didn’t even get to tell him what had happened before he opened up his fist to reveal a waxed paper bag filled with coke, which he had gotten for me, and the bundle of heroin that he had gotten for himself. I told you he was thoughtful! He stashed the drugs where he always kept them (under the stick shift’s rubber boot), and with Avenue D and the Old Salt behind us, we headed back to suburbia.
I can with full confidence say that was the night that I officially fell in love with the LES. Sure, I almost shit myself from the fear of it all but there is nothing that will make you feel more alive than a good old fashioned “pants shitting.”
Oddly enough, years later when I ended up in prison (go figure) I was looking at my bunkie Bonnie’s photo board when I noticed a familiar face—it was a picture of our old friend, “Tattoo Mike.” When I mentioned that I knew him, she told me her brother Albie was very close with him… how crazy? It was her apartment that she shared with her brother and mother where Brian bought his drugs, and The Old Salt and I shared that intimate moment. Talk about synchronicity; only in NYC does a story like that happen.
Over the years the neighborhood, as all neighborhoods do, has changed a lot. There are tons of obnoxiously expensive shops, trendy restaurants, and craft cocktail bars. One of my favorite spots is over on Bowery called The Wren. I found it years ago after going to see a comedian friend of mine do a show at the Bowery Electric. Whenever I am in the neighborhood, whether looking at street art, causing a ruckus, or bringing out-of- town friends to the LES for their first time, it’s one of my stops.
After a year and a half of living in the “Time of Corona” and not going anywhere, it seemed only natural to choose to go to NYC for our vacation. Quite often my friends and I talk about the way the city used to be and wax poetic about it, but no matter how much the neighborhood changes, the storefronts, the bars, the people, the ghosts of those who once inhabited it have left their indelible mark. No amount of construction or frou-frou-drink serving bars can change that.
On my last full day there I woke up and did what I have done so many times before, wandered the streets aimlessly looking at street art. Street art has always been my favorite form of art. I love the very idea of it, art that is accessible to everyone, and created by all types of people, not just people who can afford things like canvases and proper art supplies. With only a small percentage of street artists achieving mainstream notoriety or fame, you may see something beautiful that really speaks to you and never actually know who the creator is. I love the anonymity of it all. While many artists are being commissioned (no, they are NOT sell-outs), the majority are still doing their work under the cover of darkness.
This has been a hell of a year for everyone, and whenever there is any kind of struggle, whether it be political, racial, class, or, as we are experiencing now, pandemic, there is always a robust resurgence of art; and when it comes to the street kind, NYC never disappoints. Some pieces are genius, some are crude, and some are “geniusly crude,” like the primitive drawing I saw of a pair of tits that read, “free milk.” I can spend hours just taking it all in. Of course, I made a couple of ritualistic, planned stops—Basquiat’s Loft on Great Jones, his old apartment on Crosby, and even walked by where Brian used to cop (Bonnie and Albie’s apartment on Ave D)—but there is nothing my soul needed more, particularly after this last year and a half, than to go back to something familiar and fall in love with it all over again.
Author: Cynthia Tarana is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.
Contact Cynthia at firstname.lastname@example.org