NYC 1978. Just got here from Ohio, to be an actor.
Confession. To be a movie star.
I get a single room on West 22nd st. It’s 15 by 8.
So I put the bed in the basement and get a mattress that stands against the wall. A folding table and chairs
Voila. It’s roomy.
Washington Square Park in the Village is my favorite place.
This Jamaican guy is always at the entrance.
He’s the first Jamaican I’ve ever seen. Man, he has style.
Green pants and a yellow shirt. A small black fedora; with a red, green, and yellow band.
He’s tall, lean, and powerful. With a magnificent patchy beard.
His shoulders are wide and his long arms hang so relaxed. The graceful way he twists and leans and swings his head.
And that stance. Nobody stands like him.
And that walk. Fast or slow. And even slower. But always with that reggae bounce.
If you catch his eye, he gives you a quick mischievous nod.
I approach him and he smiles.
“You got a loose joint”?
We take a walk, and I slip him $2.
That good Jamaican weed. It will last all week. You know them Rastas can’t roll a skinny one. The fountain is my favorite spot. A huge circle with 3, 4, maybe 5 groups of people around it. Each group has a guitar player or 2 strumming. Maybe somebody’s ringing out a beat on a djembe drum. Or in a trance from the pebbles inside a maraca. Or bumping a tambourine off some part of their body.
Everyone is dancing and singing. And it’s those old songs of the late 60s and early 70s. Singing and dancing with carefree eyes.
White and black, old and young, male and female. All are welcome.
And singing these songs after a puff of that smoke? God, it’s like being in heaven
Every morning a grand piano rolls through the streets of the East Village, so securely on its greased wheels, that it flows like water, always taking the path of least resistance. A wiry old man with shaggy hair and worn clothes is pushing with long full strides. He squeezes around double-parked cars with the confidence of a yellow cab. He has this dance perfected.
His destination? The park. Right next to the Arch.
He rarely looks at anyone. He is so intense; no one dares disturb him.
He sits staring at the keys. And then begins.
People crowd around the piano now. He plays the same song for 10 hours every day. It sounds like a Wagnerian Operatic Finale.
Even the silence between the notes is thrilling. His arms sometimes raise high, and his hands drop on the keys with a passionate flurry, and glorious music rings out, sounding like dozens of church bells. He looks like Beethoven in a frenzy of genius. I feel like grabbing a sword and charging a crowd of warriors.
There’s an old man who strolls the Village streets, day and night, clarinet in hand. He stops, points it , and melodies with that hypnotic clarinet tone come dancing out. People freeze. And begin to melt. He plays for a minute, and then dances off to play for others. Never for money. Always for love.
There’s Charlie Barnett, the comedian. He walks to the center of the fountain and tells the people to start cheering and clapping. People hear the roar, and rush over. In a minute there may be 200 people circling the fountain. And Charlie begins.
“I’m Charlie Barnett. I live in Harlem”
“And I have a summer home in Newark”
He’s off. Every show is great. He collects his donations and leaves with his entourage of misfits to go party. He comes back broke and does late shows for smaller crowds. Everybody loves Charlie. Charlie Barnett, a shooting star.
There’s a young actor who strolls the Village with a well-worn, laminated list of monologues he will perform. For a donation to his cup. He’s intoxicated with the love of drama. I sometimes give him 50 cents for Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.
Boy is he a ham. But he’s a passionate ham.
He shouts, waves his arms, drops to the ground, covers his face with his hands, and gazes into the heavens. People are amazed by him.
Around 11 p.m. a section of the park becomes a disco, playing the soul hits of WBLS and KISS FM from a boombox. Anybody can hit the dance floor.
It’s a warm and steamy night, and those dark Brooklyn girls are feeling sexy. The rhythm has them excited, and they have all the guys excited.
At 10 p.m., off 7th avenue, by the iconic triangular Cigar Shop, an older guy sets up a small table and 2 chairs. And puts up a sign -.’Handwriting Analysis $2’
He is quickly surrounded by a mob for hours. People sit down and write May I buy eggs? And sign it . And he tells them what kind of person they are for 3 minutes. They and their friends laugh, bounce, and scream in agreement. He never misses. When he gets paid he nonchalantly flashes a fistful wad of cash. On MacDougal st. off west 3rd, there are 2 chess shops with maybe 10 tiny tables, side by side, with games setup.
Watch a game from the window, have a seat at an empty table, or approach a stranger at a table “Wanna’ play?”
And you carefully squeeze in. It’s $2 an hour.
I lose almost every game. But I learn how all the pieces move.
Well I’m not sure if I ever got castling down. I remember the first time somebody castled against me. I was like “Woah, what the fuck was that bro.”
With a smile of course.
Chess is popular in the Park. Seven stone tables with a permanent board on top. Grandmasters show up to play. Many games have clocks with timers. They make their move and hit that clock BAM
Players strike their clocks back and forth like a boxing match.
A lot of them talk smack, and pounce on their opponents’ pieces with violence. A clear, sharp, delicious ‘clack’ rings out. Then they slam the clock.
Little guys with glasses act like beasts.
The great players’ games have huge crowds, crammed tight all around. Heads constantly twisting for a better view. Everybody is leaning on everybody. No one is talking.
The Village has tiny no-frills diners that are always open. Like The Bagel. It has a narrow counter, tiny seats, and zero elbow room. You sit down with the midnight crowd and watch your bagel being toasted on the grill. A smear of cream cheese and some purple jam what a treat.
Yeah, walking in the Village is like strolling the Midway at a Carnival. It’s interacting with people. Up close and in their face
And music. Live music
For 6 years the Village was my hangout. Then I moved on. Decades and decades passed. 2018. I’m back at my old Park. It’s been a long time.
No, I’m not a movie star. Maybe if I would have come to be an actor instead, who knows.
No cool Jamaica greeter. I don’t think he was sellin’ weed for money. No, a spirit like that, he came to share his country’s beloved ganga with NYC. To make people feel good. I wonder if he knew that even people who didn’t smoke felt good just lookin’ at him.
At the fountain there are no groups of people. Everybody is on the move, hypnotized by their phones. It looks like a science fiction movie.
Wait. I see a group. With 2 guitar players. Moving closer, it hits me.
These are the same motherfuckers from 40 years ago. Still lookin’ beautiful. Still dressing like Jimi Hendrix. And still dancing and singing those sweet songs of love. Hallelujah