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Alphabet City A City Within A City 

I was baptized on Avenue B, passing junkies on the street. Played a game of skelzies on my knees with the bottle caps on C. Los Machachos was down from me sold Cigarettes , rice and beans. Guardian Angels somehow kept the peace 

Memoir: About

     When I was 10 years old trying to get home from Avenue A and 5th Street to Avenue C and 4th Street it felt like 10,000 cockroaches crawling inside of me and there was nothing I could do except keep moving forward. I was scared back then like I’m scared today when I fly. It’s the feeling of all of your muscles tensing, your jaw locking, stomach twisting, and head exploding. You feel like you are on the brink of death and you can’t stop that feeling. That was what walking on my block felt like to me. Despite what I felt on the inside, my poker face never let it show. In Alphabet City, if you looked like a target you became one. I knew that, even at 10 years of age. I grew up fast and learned how to survive. So when I walked past the twenty or so junkies with their skeleton fingers, pockmarked faces and desperate eyes, and the defiant, barely old enough to drink or drive drug dealers, I walked as though I were strolling along Park Avenue on a sunny day.

     Before I reached my block my route from spending the day with my friends in the Village consisted of walking down 8th Street and St. Mark’s Place. Back in the day, St. Mark’s was seedy but so alive. The strip was only three blocks long but every square inch was inhabited by one of kind restaurants, clothing shops, bookstores, bars and the most diverse group of people throughout NYC. It was the kind of area where one would spot celebrities like David Bowie or Cher looking to buy a new hat or some cheap sunglasses, all the while standing next to a bum or business man. I would walk down St. Mark’s with my middle brother Derek and my best friend Laura like we owned those streets. We would pass Trash and Vaudeville and Manic Panic, the original punk rock stores on Saint Marks. Manic Panic owners, Tish and Snooky would eventually sing at my wedding some thirty years later, who knew? A few doors down from Trash and Vaudeville was the Saint Marks Hotel. Home to junkies, musicians and lost souls. I would spend a majority of my teen life in that hotel with one of my greatest musical influences, Ellis Hooks. Ellis is a singer songwriter from Alabama who would beat on his guitar with such force that the crappy thin walls in his room would shake, He taught me how to play Sunshine on my Shoulders and even though it never sounded half as good as when he played it, he made me feel important. We would sit in his tiny room for hours jamming out on his guitar. I still have an old cassette tape of us from 1981; this was the real school of rock, before private lessons, YouTube and “pay to play gigs.” Then there was the Dojo restaurant, which was owned by my mother’s friend Tadao, (he would end up being more of a father to my oldest brother than our own dad) and rounding the corner at 8th and 2nd Avenue I would pass Gem Spa, where I longed for a vanilla egg cream but usually didn’t have the 50 cents to purchase one. Our grade schools were a few blocks away from St. Mark’s. PS 122, on 10th Street and 1st Avenue, which has since been turned into a performance space and PS 19 on 12th Street and 1st Avenue. Eventually, I would buy pot on the corner of 10th and 1st Avenue but for now, I was just another kid going to grade school with kids like Harley Flanagan, one of the founders of the infamous punk band the Cro-Mags. Harley used to slam his head into the old telephone booths because he had a crush on our friend Jennifer. It was his way of flirting, which we all thought was hilarious. He once told us girls a story about his band mate mistakenly eating a box of petrified cockroaches because she thought she was chomping down on cereal, GROSS. Then there was Bobby Martinez; we attended the Children’s Musical Theater Group together with Laura on East 11th Street. Bobby would eventually go on to date Madonna, and even face retribution from Sean Penn who threatened to shoot him.

     Before all of that, however, we were just kids surviving the Lower East Side in the 70s and 80s. Violence, drugs, music, politics were part of our daily lives. Despite all of that, I still feared Alphabet City. It was like I was standing on a cliff when I was on St. Mark’s, full of excitement and wonderment, only to take that last step off, out of the safe zone, and fall into an abyss, a black hole full of monsters and demons. I kept walking East on 8th street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I would continue along St. Mark’s passing Dr. Kramer’s office; he was our dentist and a sweet, talkative man. He took care of our family whether my mother had the money to pay him or not. My brother and I would eventually become victims of a robbery there but that is a story for a later time. Then there was Saint Mark’s Bar, on the corner of 1st Avenue, which I was too young to frequent although that didn’t stop me from getting into the bars in the West Village when I turned 14. Places like Kenny’s Castaway, The Bitter End and Mills Pub. They birthed my love for rock and roll music. And yes, I eventually played in all of these clubs, reveling in the knowledge that I was standing on the stage where Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell and other greats had stood. I would keep walking east until I hit Tompkins Square Park, which I always avoided unless I was with my brothers. There was nothing good in that park, besides devil worshippers, hypodermic needles, old drunken white men and of course the occasional concerts at the bandstand but the stage was mostly the domain of derelicts and the homeless. I could feel the sun was going down on my back, darkness was closing in and my senses were heightened. My street was dangerous day or night but somehow it felt scarier in the dark.

     7A Café was caddy corner to the park. There was generally a mixture of beatniks who might be leisurely sitting over a cup of coffee, talking about the woes of society, or the working poor out to dinner needing a break from their cramped apartment, tiny kitchen with it’s refrigerator door held shut by duct tape. I would eventually get a job at 7A when I was 16 only to be fired two months later when I mistakenly told one of the waitresses I was still in High School; turns out she was the manager’s girlfriend. From 7th and Avenue A, I would head to 5th Street between A and B and that was cliff’s edge.

Sophie’s bar was open all night and was my safe haven before I plunged into darkness. I would always peer in to see how busy it was and size up who I would run to if I were in need of help. There was always some big guy at the corner of the bar drinking alone, or a group of young people playing pool. I figured the group of young people would be the safe bet. When it was no longer in site I would strain to hear the last bit of music playing from the bar as I walked closer to Avenue B, to the silence and darkness. Once I reached 5th and B there were no more lights. No stores, no restaurants, no people. I was alone, defenseless. At this point, I was one block away from Sophie’s and 2 blocks from my front door. The moments between 5th Street and 4th Street on Avenue B were endless, one long block of nothingness. Still, I preferred this route over 4th street between A and B because there weren’t any drug dealers or junkies on 5th. In the blackness I could still hide, blend into the nothingness of the vacant buildings. Go unnoticed. I was very quiet when I would walk home, eyes darting left and right and then just as quickly as I was plunged into the abyss I was suddenly faced with an entire block of chaos. 4th Street between Avenue B and C, my block, would eventually ignite Operation Pressure Point, a massive police raid that deployed over 200 police officers over a 10 block radius to try to stop the drug trade. But before that came to pass I had to make it home and between me and my building was a row of junkies, dealers and gang members. At any given moment there would be at least 20 junkies day or night lined up waiting to feed. The dealers controlled the streets, wielding their own kind of justice. Blocks, and blocks of burnt-out buildings, shells of themselves, bordered up with cylinder blocks only to have them busted out by the dealers. 

The abandon building next door to me was known as the “Executive” it was where you bought the ''Executive'' brand of heroin. Years later, when renewing my license the DMV agent told me a terrifying story about that building. I always knew the dealers were heavily armed inside, guns, knives bats even hand grenades would be confiscated in the 1984 raid but what I didn’t know was that the dealers kept a pack of dogs in there. Dogs whom had all had their vocal chords cut and their nails removed. The reason was because if junkie tried to skip out on paying the dealer they would release the dogs on them. Thanks to the cut vocal chords and the declawing, they never heard them coming. This was my home this was Alphabet City, A City Within A City. 

Memoir: Inner_about
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