The East Village in eight days

As part of my nomadic time in New York, I moved to the East Village for a little over a week. This is because everyone’s going on vacation at all different times.

  • Darwin and his mom, from June 24 to July something. Before I even asked to rent they agreed to rent their house to someone else during that time.
  • Kane has been in Ireland since early June, but his family’s been here.
  • Well, up until today. Today is when I start my ten-day shift of cat-sitting and plant-watering for them.
  • But from June 24 until today I needed somewhere to stay, so Darwin’s mom got a friend of hers, Michael, to let me stay at his apartment in the East Village.

Up ’til I left it, I was staying in Park Slope, which has been described to me as the place where sort-of-rich people come to have their babies. It’s true: strollers are all over the neighborhood. The East Village, however, has a rather different reputation. It’s where two or three kinds of people live, in harmony: poor creative types, immigrants (especially Hispanic ones), and possibly hipsters, though I’m not sure about the last. It’s much grittier and more crowded. There’s graffiti on everything, including many of the cars. When stores are closed their storefronts are all secured with metal rolldown covers. The building where Michael’s apartment is, he tells me, started out as a squat, and eventually the people squatting it managed to get the deed transfered to them legally.

Michael’s been in the apartment for a long time, and built up a pretty considerable amount of junk. Whenever I came out of his bathroom, for instance, I found myself staring directly at a life-size wooden cutout of Marilyn Monroe getting her skirt blown up by a passing subway. Until my snap-decision mind trained itself to realize this large human-shaped object was not a real human this was quite unnerving. But other stuff he had was more benign and fun, such as his extensive collection of vinyls and his other extensive collection of old, very good books, many of them first editions or autographed copies that he’s accumulated during his time living in the epicenter of New York’s independent bookstore scene, where so many authors visit. The East Village is also where Soft Skull started, in a basement a few blocks away from Michael’s place, publishing the books that a strange man named Sander Hicks wrote. I found one of these books while I was in Park Slope, bought it from a guy selling books from a table. The back cover is taken up by a photograph of a dead mouse on a concrete surface, with Sander giving it an aggressive middle finger. Soft Skull has changed a bit since then, but it’s kept the name Sander gave it, even though no one now seems to know exactly what possessed him to name the company that. The East Village scene is a tight-knit one, especially among the creative types: Michael used to know Sander, and one of his good friends, as I’ve mentioned before at some point, is an author we’ve published recently, Seth Tobocman.

I didn’t have much time to enjoy being in the hub of everything weird and creative in New York City, so I tried to make the best of it. Since Michael was away and I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood, that actually turned out a bit difficult. But I saw what sights there are. The independent bookstores, of course. There are three within easy walking distance: Bluestockings, East Village Books, and Saint Mark’s Books. Their anarchist books were about the extent of my acquaintance with the East Village anarchist scene, which I hear is particularly alive and interesting; another thing the East Village is a hub for is anarchists, and their kin. These sections of the bookstores weren’t enormous, no bigger really than any other section, but that they were there at all was unique to the East Village’s stores among all the bookstores I’m aware of having visited. I got some interesting books at these stores, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and hung out for a long time reading bits and pieces here and there, of zines and other interesting stuff. Soft Skull was well represented in these places.

The other thing I visited besides the independent bookstores was Tompkins Square Park. I first heard about this from the trainhopper I met at Punk Island; she told me it’s where lots of travelers hang out when they’re in town. She was right. It took me a while to find them, because they stay mostly in one corner. But it was obvious when I got to the corner, because everyone was: filthy, wearing dark clothes, carrying backpacks, and, for the most part, asleep. I was still crippled by not knowing anyone, though. It just didn’t seem right for me to say to a traveler, “So, where are you coming from?” It seemed like it’d be a breach of etiquette, since I was obviously not a traveler myself. If I’d had filthy clothes and a backpack and at least a rudiment of a story of my own, I’d have felt at ease with them. But as it was I just felt like an intruder. So I moved on to other sections of the park.

It’s a strangely sectionalized park. There are bunches of playgrounds where kids jump and run on the jungle gyms, and there’s a dog walking park, and there’s a place where bands play. These are all pretty normal things to find at a park. But then there’s also the chessboard tables: these have chess players at them, but also, apparently, addicts of most known drugs. Particularly there were two women who, in the bizarre way their body fat hung, appeared to be melting before my eyes. They had rasps for voices. One of them asked me to take out the circles of tin that had fallen into her cans of tuna. I did, and I also watched some chess in progress, but I was too distracted to follow it, let alone ask one of the nice-looking old men if he’d care to clobber me in a game, so I kept walking around the park. For all its reputation, though, it’s a surprisingly small park—you can easily see from one side to the other—and I had exhausted what I could do there, so I went back to Michael’s apartment.

While I was staying there, I got lots of work done on my latest font, Walleye. This one’s been tricky to make, for obscure reasons that would be hard to explain. They have to do with the unusual mix I’ve got going on of straight lines and curves. But it’s turning out really well, I think; the trickiness mainly just makes me glad I waited until I had some experience with Bézier curves (the mathematical curves that make up each letter) to start this font. I’ve had to do some weird stuff with these curves. I also read a little while I was there, including the weird and spectacular If on a winter’s night a traveler (which is about you trying to read If on a winter’s night a traveler, but every time you get to the exciting part the book gets cut off by something and turns out to have been the wrong book anyhow). And I ate some pizza, ramen, and some too-expensive ice cream.

Then, today, I packed up everything I have in the city, except a bottle of sesame sauce that I forgot, and took the subway back to Park Slope to start cat-sitting. This apartment is about five times as roomy as Michael’s and Marilyn Monroe doesn’t peep at me in the bathroom, but all the same I’ll still miss the East Village. I feel like I never really even got to know it, in some ways. But, since Michael’s not disappearing, and I’ll be staying with Darwin’s mom again after I’m done here, I’ll probably end up going back there at some point. So maybe I’ll get to know it yet.

File under: interesting people, reading · Places: NYC


Anonymous

History

Have you picked up any New York mannerisms yet? Been cut off by a car and found yourself muttering "go f*ck yourself" under your breath? Ha ha! Seen any characters who look like they could have been cast in "The Sopranos?"

Now I want a Nathan's hot dog smotherd in onions and mustard.

Dave

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Chuck

History

I just biked by the original Nathan's today at Coney Island, but I didn't get a hot dog. They appeared to be something like closed, hunkering down for the July 4th hot dog eating contest. Maybe I should've tried bypassing the scaffolding and heavy machinery setting up the stage there.

Haven't met any Sopranos yet. Strangely enough the person I've met who most seemed like a gangster was in Grinnell, at a place called the Snack Shack, which is open until 2:30 in the morning and has a weird clientele. This guy was called Charlie. He paid for his Pepsi with a $100 bill, and then turned to me and remarked on that in a scratchy voice: "Lots of money. FIGHT for money." But I also got the impression that he was a mostly harmless crazy man who just came in and bought Pepsis and stuff.

Reply Reply

Chuck

History

Just seemed like the right name at the time. I'd been thinking of naming a font Walleye for a while, and it kind of fit for this one. I once thought I'd name a font Crowduck, but now I think I'll keep that name all to myself.

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Anonymous

History

I am reading 'The Sunburned Country' by Bill Bryson. If you have not read it and are interested, I will save it for you. It is about Australia and I find it quite funny. Grandpa

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