You are 14, your past is brief, your future is limitless, and there are so many things that you want in life: a skull-shaped bong, a pierced tongue, a tattoo, and above all a Fuck You You Fuckin’ Fuck T-shirt, the kind that is impossible to find in your dopey hometown, but is for sale a mere bus or train ride away on St. Marks Place.
For at least three generations, this sort of item has been available on the East Village’s Via Dolorosa, this wastrel street of dirty desires. Your grandfather came here to hear Ornette Coleman play at the Five Spot; your mom took LSD for the first time at the Electric Circus—did she pick up a stranger and spend the night at the Valencia Hotel—now renamed the St. Marks Hotel, still teetering in its sleazy dishabille on the corner of Third? She’ll never tell.
St. Marks Place got its start in the early 1830s—the name was meant to sound tonier than East Eighth Street—but you have to look hard to find traces of that storied history. Still, number four, next to the corpse of Trash and Vaudeville, is standing, albeit padlocked, and with a Beware of Dog sign. This was once the home of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, widow of that guy currently reigning at the Richard Rodgers Theater, 38 blocks uptown.
Waves of German immigrants, followed by Eastern Europeans, came to define the area. Then, sometime in the middle of the last century, the street became a haven for bohemians priced out of the West Village: In 1965, a Newsweek writer noted that those looking for the East Village should “head east from Greenwich Village, and when it starts to look squalid, around the Bowery and Third Avenue, you know you’re there.”
Lenny Bruce lived at number 13 (what would he thought of that Fuckin’ T-shirt, having been busted for far less?). Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had a place in number 30, now near the site of Kung Fu Tea. Did those two founders of the Yippies, who invented their own brand of goofy-anti-capitalist activism, ever read Trotsky? It might have amused them to know (hey, they were usually high, lots of stuff amused them) that Trotsky himself, a father of the Russian Revolution, lived, for a while, at number 80.
Number 80, home of Theatre 80 St. Marks! Still a theater, but no longer a famous revival house, showing the movies that shaped a generation of arty collegians in the 1960s. Those film buffs were obsessed with reclaiming the campy musicals and dramas of the 1930s and ’40s—cinematic history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Now there is something called Museum of the American Gangster upstairs at number 80, but out front, the neglected sidewalk stands as an East Village homage to Hollywood Boulevard—look closely, and you will see that Ruby Keeler stuck her dancing feet in the cement and signed the pavement on October 19, 1971.
If those avid watchers of Nothing Sacred and His Girl Friday were thirsty after the double bill, they could repair to Gem Spa, still remarkably intact on the corner of Second Avenue. Allen Ginsberg, beat poet/patron saint and local resident—he died in his home on East 12th Street in 1997—was a customer. In 1969, he ended a poem with the line: “Back from the Gem Spa, into the hallway, a glance behind and sudden farewell to the bedbug-ridden mattresses piled soggy in dark rain.”
Down the block from the Gem, another poet, W. H. Auden, lived in a flat that supposedly had no working bathroom; the writer, it was said, relied on the facilities in the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, still in business downstairs (but on a recent afternoon boasting a new spring menu, belieing its proud roots as a dive bar).
A ceramic plaque honoring Auden on what is now the La Palapa restaurant is in shards. If memory serves, it once bore the poet’s famous lines: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” Auden wasn’t talking about his neighborhood—or was he? For what could be more beloved than this three-block stretch of trashy vaudeville, an electrified circus of the mind, the spirit, the heart—standing in all its filthy glory, a bridge back to your youthful dreams?
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