History with a Big H: The City as Illness, as Metaphor

Every street, every block, carries me unwillingly back in time. The true history of the City consists of myriad, mostly forgotten small details. I’ve reached a point in my life that I am losing the will to remember. Perhaps, like an illness, it will pass.

And yet…

I recall (it seems not so long ago, in fact, it seems like yesterday) the horror I felt upon turning the corner onto E. 10th Street and seeing my roommate, Eleanor, dressed in little more than a knee-length faux-fur coat and riding boots, step into an idling car and close the door behind her. The car, of course, sped off. That block, where she had so evidently been strutting her stuff, was located between First and Second Avenue and was a well-known albeit notorious ‘stroll’ where prostitutes, even formerly upper-middle-class ones like Eleanor, hawked their wares. At the time, the sight of her, in hooker’s regalia, made sense – i.e. it added up in my brain. You see, poor Eleanor had recently fallen onto hard times. She’d dropped out of a master’s Classics program at Columbia, having accrued a substantial debt to a heroin dealer on Clinton Street. In the milieu to which she and I belonged, turning tricks, as far as solutions went, seemed a logical way to make quick cash. Inevitably, her parents arrived from Orange County to rescue her. Their intervention would only momentarily impede her downward spiral. She became in no particular order: a dominatrix, a dancer, a call-girl…. then the last I heard, the girlfriend of a coke-dealer… etc etc etc etc.

I was a rock musician who, when home from tour, worked as a furniture mover. My fellow-roommate and girlfriend, Marie, was a filmmaker and a barmaid. Selling oneself into sexual slavery, to us, seemed, if not run of the mill, at least more proof of what awaited us on the losing side of the wager we were making. In New York you could become famous or you could die alone in a small, cheap room.

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Skeletal AIDS sufferers walked the streets, rents were rising, dope was everywhere. Rock musicians were, briefly, handed recording contracts like lottery tickets. The curriculum of any sort of bohemian life requires that death, fame and wealth should always exist in close proximity to each other.

As I said, E. 10th was a ‘notorious’ ‘stroll’. In those days prostitutes were (among other things), akin to landmarks. One could step out of the subway, walk a few blocks and know immediately if you were going in the wrong or right direction by the simple fact that you’d just encountered prostitutes: “Of course! I must be on 10th Street!”

In 1990, I’d moved from Hartford into a room on Broome and Varick. Upon my arrival, I trolled the streets and avenues, notebook in hand, like a Midwestern tourist. I found history, eternity all within a ten-minute walk.


“To the east, at Ludlow and Grand, I would often stand before the apartment where Lou, Sterl and John Cale lived in 1966 and listen for the drone of their instruments.”


At the corner of Prince and Wooster had once stood ‘Food’, a co-op founded by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Artists could trade their labor – as waiters, busboys, dishwashers – for gourmet meals. To the east, at Ludlow and Grand, I would often stand before the apartment where Lou, Sterl and John Cale lived in 1966 and listen for the drone of their instruments. On E. 7th, I would gaze slack jawed at the tenement where Ginsburg once lived and where Burroughs and Kerouac often stayed. Nearby, on E. Second Street was the building the Ramones occupied at the time they made their deathless, immortal first two albums. On 82 E. 4th Street the Dolls played there one and only full drag show at the (of course) defunct Club 82. And further East, a block over, near Avenue C was the site of the former free jazz mecca, Sluggs Saloon. Uptown from there I found the patch of sidewalk at 51 Fifth Avenue onto which Andrea “Whipps” Feldman had jumped to her death, in front of, among others, Jim Carroll. This was History with a big H

To not be cognizant of these things would have meant that I was dead or at least brain-dead. I swear to god upon my arrival I found traces, evanescent remnants of the past. I was entirely capable of getting drunk and effecting retrocausality – i.e. going back in time. Like a science fiction plot device, my hungry eyes were able to look backwards into the past of New York City.

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When I would leave the City to go on tour, it would often be the case that returning to New York would be the best part of the trip. It would help me forget the things I’d seen and done as my band traveled – let’s say – up and down the British Isles from Dorset to Sheffield and Glasgow and on and on. Most of these ‘campaigns’ were marred by atrocity and craven activity. I would wonder, staring out the window of the jet as I returned to New York; how long would it take before I could forget everything and once again think of myself as a decent, honorable person?


“Guitar case in hand (bought on First and St. Marks for five dollars from a junkie who claimed it once belonged to Johnny Thunders) I would hail a cab and head back to the Lower East Side. In the taxi I would pray I never saw Europe again.”


Or, I would pray for the aircraft to crash, believing that the ugly plastic and metal jet would be a fitting sarcophagus.

Instead, it would land, and I would walk through the accordion-like jet bridge, accompanied by an entourage of hopelessness and despair. Guitar case in hand (bought on First and St. Marks for five dollars from a junkie who claimed it once belonged to Johnny Thunders) I would hail a cab and head back to the Lower East Side. In the taxi I would pray I never saw Europe again. But then, after being deposited on the corner of Second and Ninth Street, I would find myself suddenly able to breathe. As the subway rumbled beneath my feet, I could hear someone practicing the trumpet behind an open window. Constellations were destroyed and reborn with each note. The City in its most fearsome mode welcomed me. Perspective could return only once my feet were firmly planted on its dogshit streets.

But now…

As any Marxist knows; base determines superstructure. The means of production produce the mode of living that we encounter in our lifeworld. Once, when Fordist assembly line production was the mode, we wrote poems on typewriters, recorded music on tape, watched movies imprinted on film. Complicated as our modern world was, it seems positively quaint to look upon it now from our current, nameless temporal period. The mode we now know is one of immaterial labor, financialization. Today, it seems every artist is compelled to produce their work on a Macbook Pro. Reification is real. Songs are sung by people who want to sound like machines. The City has mutilated itself. It is a god I can no longer believe in.

Photo by ©Meryl Meisler – (The Bowery. New York City, Lower East Side – April 1977)

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William Carlos Whitten

William Carlos Whitten was the founding member, principal songwriter and singer/guitarist for the bands St. Johnny and Grand Mal. Whitten has recorded for Rough Trade, Caroline Records, DGC, No.6 Records, Slash/London Records, Arena Rock Recordings, Iheartnoise among others. He does not deny responsibility for seven albums: Speed is Dreaming, Bad Timing, Pleasure is No Fun, Clandestine Songs, Maledictions, High as a Kite and Burn My Letters.
More of his music and writing can be found here: www.speedisdreaming.blogspot

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