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5276 words
SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Greenwich Village

Peter Najarian

To Aaron Cometbus; born, says Google, in 1968:

Dear Aaron, thanks for your letter about The Artist and His Mother. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Regarding your asking about my past in Manhattan: it was only five minutes by bus from where I grew up in Union City, so I was actually as much a New Yorker as friends from Brooklyn or Queens who would call Jersey the boondocks; especially since I worked there for my brother’s photo-engraving shop near Times Square in my last two summers of high school, and I was later a Welfare worker in Harlem for a year. And of course I lived in the Village in the spring of 1960, which was one of the most important experiences of my life.

Manhattan was and still is the most important city of my life, and I’ve been going back there whenever I can, not only for the Met, but old friends like Lenny Silverberg, whose loft is on the corner of Lafayette and Broome, where we lunched with your friend Arthur Nercesian a few years ago.

In the photo on Page 99 of The Artist and His Mother, taken by my brother with his box camera from the kitchen of our third-floor apartment, circa 1946, you can if you look close see in the background the skyscrapers in midtown.

I grew up with this view, not only from our kitchen, but wherever I played on the cliffs above the waterfront, the Empire State Building always shining across the river like the tower of an enchanted castle where I would seek my destiny someday.

I finally got my chance after getting kicked out of Rutgers in the beginning of my sophomore year, when I was the one in our crew who got caught stealing potato chips from a concession stand we would invade while sweeping the stadium after the football games.

Then, lost and adrift, I found through an employment agency a minimum wage job at First National City bank, and I rented a room for seven dollars a week in a flophouse on the corner of where West Fourth cuts into West Twelfth; 280 West Twelfth, if I remember right, the room so small it had no space for a chair, so I had to sit on my bed to type with my little Hermes portable on a fruit-crate the stories I would submit to Richard Yates in his evening workshop in the New School, he himself writing his first novel, Revolutionary Road, in his own cockroach studio on Bleeker Street.

Norman Mailer, whose Advertisements for Myself had just been published, lived around the corner from me on Perry Street, or so I was told by my friend Jim, who picketed with him for Caryl Chessman in the protest march around the triangle of the Woman’s House of Detention on Seventh Avenue, just north of Sheridan Square.

Why there I don’t know, but it seemed to be the site for protest marches, and if you passed it in the early morning you could hear the girls yelling down to their boyfriends on the sidewalk, the boyfriends yelling back: “Maria! Maria!”

It’s gone now, and so too the Village I once knew, and I haven’t seen Jim in more than forty years, though not a day goes by I don’t remember him.

He was to me then, though only three years older, a kind of mentor I would follow like a puppy, and one night we went to see Waiting for Godot, which still unknown had just come to States and was performed in a loft in the garment district with just a few chairs, and one of the actors could have even been Al Pacino, who turning twenty was my age and just beginning his career, or if not he nevertheless had the same intense acting talent, and I was stunned, especially sitting only a few feet away, though I didn’t understand at all what the play was about.

It was also via Jim that I found the room in the flophouse. He and Renate had a hundred-and-fifteen-dollar-a-month ground-floor studio apartment on West Tenth, just off West Fourth, which he could afford with the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship he had in Columbia, while Renate, three months pregnant when I first met her, was a nurse in St. Vincent’s, and they were saving as much as they could to sail abroad after the Wilson expired.

He had been a senior when I was a freshman in Rutgers, and though I didn’t know him in Rutgers, I knew his friend Norm who was the head shipping clerk in the basement of the Rutgers University Press, where I was sent by the university employment office for a part-time job.

I was already writing by then, and Norm was writing his first novel, Coat Upon a Stick, that would be published around the same time as Revolutionary Road, and I adopted him as the first of my surrogate older brothers whom I would follow like a puppy; as on the morning when I went with him to an eight o’clock seminar that was for seniors only, and the young professor was Allan Kaprow, who wore a brown corduroy suit and a beard that only beatniks wore in those days, and Norm’s friend Lucas Samaras was also in that seminar, which was on Picasso.

Do you know who Allan Kaprow and Lucas Samaras are? You can Google them. Lucas was Kaprow’s protégé and Kaprow had just invented his “Happenings,” which would be to contemporary performance art what Picasso’s cubism was to so-called modern art; and by chance Kaprow showed slides that morning on how Picasso had come to where he could make art out of anything.

In the meantime Kaprow’s friend George Segal lived nearby, plastering his mummies with the gauze he got free from the Johnson and Johnson factory in New Brunswick. Do you know who George Segal is? And Lickenstein was also around New Brunswick then, just beginning his comic-strip paintings.

But at eighteen I was just learning what deKooning was about, and anyway I had too much to read to follow the Kaprow gang, nor did I know I would be a painter myself someday.

Even more ignorant of politics, especially after growing up in a breeding ground for the Mafia, I had no interest in anything communal except literature, and all I knew of communism was that it was supposed to be next in line after the Nazis. So Norm, who was now leading me to the rest of my life, would also become my political mentor, and by chance he was when I met him reading a booklet by Norman Mailer, called The White Negro, that was published by Dissent Magazine, in bold black print on a white cover.

Do you know how important The White Negro was when it first came out? Do you know who Caryl Chessman was? Or Norm Fruchter? Just names now, but they loom like headlines in my personal history of those years.

Norm left for London on a Fulbright after graduating, and when I returned to Rutgers in the fall I was so hungry to learn as much as I could I even wanted to go to graduate school; until the potato chips threw me in the opposite direction.

Suddenly Rutgers, which was then just a small rustic campus of old clapboard ramshackles that felt like a new home to me, was suddenly gone, and where was I to go and what was I to do?

Join the Army, said my next older brother surrogate, Fred, who took Norm’s place in the shipping room and had learned in the Army’s language school the German he was now using with his G.I. Bill for his Ph.D.

It was practical advice in those peacetime years before Vietnam, but my instinct turned away from what the army represented, and like a Percival riding to an enchanted castle, I would instead seek my destiny across the river.

Manhattan had always been the center of my world, and where else to live in it but the Village that was, like the Montmartre of Hemingway and Picasso, the home of artists and writers; though I hardly knew it except for the night my high-school pals and I fantasized about getting laid there as if it were a red-light district, the word beatnik having just been coined and synonymous with sexy girls who wore black netted stockings.

So after commuting to the bank, I took the bus to Port Authority on a Saturday morning, and with the advice of a friend who told me it could help me find a place to live, I bought a copy of a new paper called The Village Voice, that was started, if I’m not mistaken, with Mailer’s help; but when I found its office, somewhere around Cooper Union, it was closed, and the streets looked so desolate I felt lost and hopeless.

The city that had been my castle now seemed like the wasteland Percival found after his vision dissolved, and I didn’t know where to turn. Then suddenly came a blue air-letter from Norm telling me to look up his friend Jim, and when I visited Jim he was hanging out with a young poet from Harvard, Bill Cokely, who said a room was for rent down the street, and a few days later my cousin Aram drove me there with my Hermes and my quilt and a bag of my mother’s chorag.

Aram was shocked by how squalid the flophouse seemed, but I couldn’t have been more excited, and I moved in like Walt Whitman when he was my age: “starting across the river from where I was born, well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother, to strike up for a New World.”

My room was at the end of the first floor with a big window and a fire-escape on the Fourth Street side, and next door was a young junkie couple, and next to them a mysterious woman who would slip from her door like a lady of the night in a film noir; and we each shared a bathroom that had a rusty tub with a grimy shower curtain and a rusty sink with a cracked mirror, though the janitor did clean it with ammonia every Saturday morning, and to this day the odor of ammonia brings it all back to me with the romance of nostalgia.

I was actually living in Greenwich Village like my heroes! And I was so excited not even my loneliness could defeat me, especially when I could pour it out with my reams of yellow pulp paper like Jack London’s Martin Eden and Saroyan’s Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Except for five minutes with a whore in Newark the year before, I was practically a virgin, so the first time I heard a moaning inside the wall I thought it was from a hot-water pipe, until a soft voice made me realize it was from the young woman of the junkie couple, whom I would later meet when Jim asked me to ask them to buy us a bag of heroin so we could experiment with it like we did with the peyote buds he ordered from Smith’s Cactus Ranch in Texas.

Exploring new worlds has always been of course what being young is all about, and while I would miss learning French and Major British Writers like my ex-classmates, I learned instead how to inhale what I called “grass” in those days, and though nothing to me now, it became one of my most important guides to my opening.

And so the weeks passed with the excitement of being nineteen in what Thomas Wolfe had called “the man-swarm in its million footed weft,” and I rushed along with it every morning to catch the IRT Express at the West Twelfth Street station and the shuttle at Times Square and the Lexington Avenue local uptown, until I came to the branch of the bank on Fifty-something, where I printed checkbooks in the basement and delivered packages to Wall Street.

Then, after returning to my room for a can of Heinz beans and franks on a double hotplate, I would walk to the New School where I fell in love with H., who had just graduated from Barnard and lived in a brownstone on Eighty-first Street near the Met, and I would have to take the same IRT and Lexington to reach her as well, though I got to kiss her only once.

In the meantime I would “hang out” at Jim’s in what was now called his “pad” in the new language of what Mailer had called “The hipster” in his White Negro, the word “hippy” yet to come, while “hip” meant something much more nefarious and even dangerous.

Marijuana is as common as alcohol now, but in those days you smoked with the shades down and you wore sunglasses in the dark of night. The cultural revolution now called “The Sixties” wouldn’t flower until the upheaval of The Free Speech Movement and the acid explosion in the Haight, and Nixon and Kennedy were just beginning their race while the rest of the country was still Doris Day and bomb shelters.

The roots of the coming revolution, which had grown from the new jazz and action painting of the war years, now lay deep in the ghetto of the Village, while as far as I knew the East Village didn’t exist except for maybe a bar called Stanley’s, and anywhere beyond Houston Street was the hinterland.

Yet as dense and vital as it was to me then, I was unaware of how rich it actually was, and not until years after I left did I learn what was really happening around me, especially in jazz, which was still new to me, though Jim and the gang in his pad would go to the Half Note and the Vanguard and what was the other one called, where Coltrane and Monk and the other giants performed. I kick myself now for what I missed.

And just a few blocks from my room, in the neighborhood around The White Horse Tavern, though I wouldn’t know of her until years later, Jane Jacobs was writing her great masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it was she, like a David against a Goliath, who would save the Village itself from the city-planner, Robert Moses, who wanted to tear it down and fill it with a freeway.

It is gone now anyway, at least for me, and when I walked there a while ago it felt like the rooms of a museum where the furniture is roped off, my flophouse room a condominium only royalty like Woody Allen can afford.

Even the Paperback Gallery is gone, where Jim and I stole all those books that now make me feel like Flaubert’s Julian after he slaughtered all those beautiful animals whose ghosts would haunt him in his penance.

They didn’t exist before the Fifties. The only paperbacks had been the pulp kind you bought from a stand in a drugstore, and when the new editions appeared with their beautiful covers they were so luminous I wanted as many as I could stuff into my armpits.

You may even be selling some of them now in your book business in Williamsburg, like the New Directions of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha with the great photo of an Anuradhapura Buddha by A.K. Coomaraswamy that cost $1.25 when the minimum wage was a dollar an hour, or the Doubleday Anchor of Fustel Coulanges’ The Ancient City, designed by Edward Gorey, for 95 cents.

They were all designed by first rate artists like Gorey and Leonard Baskin and Leo Lioni, and the Paperback Gallery in Sheridan Square was the first shop to sell them, until thieves like Jim and I almost put them out of business and they had to install detectors. They were in our youth what the candy-store comic books had been in our childhood, and they were so magical I wanted every one of them.

Then of course there were the used bookshops on Fourth Avenue, just north of Cooper Union, where stealing was so easy we would buy a copy for a dime out of guilt. Who knows, maybe the God of Bookstores takes revenge on me now when I can’t find one. Even the used bookshops may be gone; gone the delicious odor of the musty shelves and the clerks who looked like Bowery bums, never to return in our Amazon age.

I stole in one of them the 1946 cloth-covered Viking portable of Thomas Wolfe that I would read on the subway to Brooklyn Heights and then on the esplanade where I would wait for Doris to come home from one of her dates with her “beaux,” as she called them.

She lived at the end of Montague Street, and Wolfe himself had lived around the corner on Twelfth Street, and I would feel his passion welling inside me like my own for H., while I waited for Doris, whom I took for granted.

She was a teller in the bank and she would flirt with me in the lunchroom, until she invited me for tea on a Sunday afternoon and then dinner a few days later. She was twenty-six years older than I and had a twenty-six-year-old son who lived abroad, and I would give anything to have someone like her now, but what would she want with an old penis when she could have one so young it could fill her over and over again?

If she’s still alive, I send her the love I couldn’t then, so consumed was I by the same blind hunger as my gluttony for books.

She must have been an extraordinary woman, but she was just old Doris to me, and all I knew of her was that she grew up in one of the Carolinas and had a child out of wedlock in the depths of the Depression.

She was my first girlfriend, but I wanted a real girlfriend who was my age; yet, despite her wrinkled belly and her cigarette breath, she was slim and limber, and her appetite for my penis was voracious.

She looked somewhat like her idol, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose little photo was on the paperback cover of Oscar Williams’ anthology of American Verse that she gave me one night, and when I ignored her age I actually liked her a lot, though I never answered her letters after I left.

Was she hurt, or did she have compassion for my ruthless indifference, she herself playing the same sex game with the bank president and the sea captain who would bring her home in taxis after dinner dates, unaware of her secret on the esplanade.

I remember her now as if seeing through a glass darkly, her hazel eyes and her husky voice still clear, but nothing of what she thought or felt except that she liked avocados and Van Gogh.

I had come to the Village to be a writer and there she was right in front of me, the subject, who along with H. means most to me now, and all I cared about then was fucking her as many times as I could, as if to make up for all the years of jerking off.

Why didn’t she marry and settle down in a suburb; who was she who would seduce a nineteen-year-old jock while toying with white-haired men in suits? I would know many forty-six-year-old women in the years to come, but none who had raised a child in the Depression and lived in a nice apartment overlooking the bay on a teller’s salary.

I always had to leave before dawn so no one would know, and after our last morning in June, I walked in the misty warmth and pearly light feeling such a glow from my detumescence I wanted to thank her for how much she had given me; but I didn’t know how, and I descended to the subway tunnel at Borough Hall knowing I would never see her again.

Life Study in Acrylic on Paper, ca. 2000; Painting by Peter Najarian “Life Study in Acrylic on Paper, ca. 2000”
by Peter Najarian

I realized she had been a gift from life like a blessing, but I couldn’t tell her this because I still wanted someone else, and I felt a kind of guilt, as if I had used her, though of course she had used me as well. She was a good woman, a kind woman, and I never told her this.

If she’s still alive now, she would be ninety-six.

In the meantime there was H., three subways away from my flophouse, and I would write to her as if I were her troubadour, until she finally answered.

“Dear Peter,

Of course I am writing this for my own sake, but I do hope that it is also what you wanted, for it is against my better nature to commit myself in writing. It is impossible for me not to try to be cajoling, irresistible, and all that jazz, but this is my weakness, and not meant to encourage you. Richard said that I was cruel Friday, but you and I know better.

By the way, if it is any consolation, let me admit that when you said he didn’t like me I didn’t believe you, but much as I hate to acknowledge defeat, you were quite right; well, those are the breaks, one can’t win them all. What’s more, Peter, I am too old and too honest not to simply realize that well, those are the breaks, and start lining up other candidates for conquest. I can’t pretend that my heart is irretrievably broken; you can, yet you say you don’t want to. Well, okay, to each his own. I sometimes regret my lost romanticism, and certainly never thought of myself as a professional bubble-burster, but if that’s what you want, buddy, I shall do my black-hearted best to comply with your wishes.

Like, let’s face it, old Peter, getting along without me is a hell of a lot easier than you care to admit. And while it is to my detriment to clue you in (though I undoubtedly wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t think you already knew), the truth of the matter is that you cherish your love for me, not me, buddy. But that’s all right. I’m not about to be insulted because I do the same thing, and anyway, that way I figure you can take care of yourself.

I will not say that I don’t like you, for I do, but of course I will forget you easily and quickly—to coin a phrase. Richard would say that I was being cruel, but that’s nonsense, and don’t feel sorry for yourself. Not if you really want to be released. Occasionally I do something gratuitous, and this is one of those times, but don’t push your luck, for I don’t foresee any great future for myself in playing the heavy; if you have any decency you will tear this up, and not show it to your little friends, though if you must have a testimonial to my bitchiness, I seem to have risen to the occasion. In point of fact, it looks like I could be a pro at bubble-bursting without half trying.

Oh listen, little Peter, I like you. You’re very likeable. But you are not what I’m looking for, and if you intend to make a big tragedy out of it, far be it from me to come in on cue. Now if that doesn’t take care of any left-over hopes and dreams, I’m damned if I know what will. To write more would only tempt me to be charming, so I will leave well enough alone.”

Sincerely, H.

It’s wrong to share a letter that was meant to be private, especially when asked to destroy it; unless it’s beautiful, and so I share it with you now as a beautiful self-portrait of an innocent girl whom I couldn’t truly love until it was too late.

Except for rushing uptown and the one night we went to Chumley’s Pub with Richard after class, I never saw her, and I knew only that she had graduated from Barnard and could somehow afford her apartment by the Met, and it wasn’t until I finally got her letter did I realize how much she must have loved to write, which she never shared in class.

We were that year, despite Mailer and Bellow and the other heavyweights, in the age of Salinger, who was Yates’ own mentor, and you can hear in her prose a kind of female Holden Caulfield, who, growing up in Holden’s Manhattan, now felt, at twenty-two, that she was “too old” to have any illusions and “all that jazz.”

Who knows what happened between her and Richard, who was thirty-five and divorced and probably slept with one young woman after another; but she was, yes, hurt by feeling some kind of rejection, though he was, from what I knew of him, a gentle and compassionate man.

She was just a kid, really, the same age as those now killed in Afghanistan, and though I was incapable of loving her for who she really was, she now feels like a daughter I never had, while back then she was so much more mature than I and more like an older sister of a sexual fantasy.

She was right, yes, I had been in love with an image since I was a boy, and though some part of me was aware of this, I was actually more innocent than I pretended, which was why she liked me.

Seeing beneath my role of the young naïf, she knew I knew more than I revealed, yet I really did suffer from a crippling inferiority complex, and though my letters were not really to her but who I wanted her to be, she did feel in them a part of herself.

Her reply came after our last class when I was already planning to hitch to Mexico, where I fantasized about living on a beach with a peasant sweetheart while writing my first novel. I had grown by leaps and bounds by then, as if the five months in the Village had been a steroid, and with the ruthlessness of all writers in the web of innocence and experience, I wrote at the bottom of her letter, as if I could use it like Flaubert did with Louise Colet’s letters for Madame Bovary: “What great story material!”

Yet that wasn’t why I saved it until now, no, somewhere inside me was a love that would wait until now to surface, when I feel not only guilty for what happened later, but grief for us both.

The Village was my opening, which would continue on the road to Mexico and back, and then it was gone, and back in New Brunswick, two years later, I was already on the way to my breakdowns.

I was in love with C. by then, and I was so miserable I was smoking a pack of Luckies a day. Ironically it was the marijuana that led me to cigarettes, so the saying that it leads to more dangerous drugs is really true.

My lungs were as clean as baby’s before then, but the cancer cause was still hidden, and I had started smoking when returning to New Brunswick. I felt so lonely I innocently bought a pack as if it could revive the nights with Jim in his pad, and I picked the new Marlboros, whose filters had been red for women with lipstick and were changed to cork for men with cowboy hats.

I can’t remember staying in touch with H., but I must have, since I did think of her as a friend, as I always would with all the women I would not be in love with anymore, and it was in this spirit of friendship that she sent me a second letter inviting me to visit her again.

I didn’t want her anymore, I wanted C. who didn’t want me, but I drove up to Manhattan in my ’52 Chevy jalopy, and, believe it or not, I parked by her apartment just down from the Met, the street practically empty then, 1962, and no meters.

She had gained weight and was not beautiful to me anymore. No longer hiding behind her pose, she looked very sad, and though only twenty-four, she really did feel old.

I can’t remember what we talked about, which was nothing deep or personal, yet her sadness seemed as if she had been hurt very badly, and she needed to be soothed by the Peter who once told her how beautiful she was.

She did like me, I had an energy that had made her feel alive, and she wanted it again; but sunk in my misery with C., I wanted to turn away.

We walked to the Park, which in those days still had the little zoo with the animals who are now in the Bronx, and we came to the seals who barked on the rocks in their little pool as if they too were imprisoned in this realm where all sentient beings suffer in one way or another.

I wanted to escape, but we went back to her room, and the following scene would be the same as so many in the movie of my life so filled with pain.

The deadness of her body was the opposite of what I had imagined when I was in love with her, nor did she want mine or even my desire, but a kind of love that could revive her, and of course, half dead as I was myself, I had none.

And yet at twenty-one, I could still get hard with whatever was under me, and I went through the motions not only out of guilt for not really loving her as I said I did, but as if my genitals could warm the coldness in my heart.

She hardened and retreated into her armor. She had opened her wound to me, trusting that a part of me really did love her, and all I did was perform a lie.

“So,” she said, “you finally got to sleep with the girl of your dreams,” and I dressed feeling ashamed.

I never saw her again, and I’ve been haunted with guilt ever since. I can’t remember how we said so-long, but she was sitting by the window, looking closed and hard, as if she would never trust anyone again.

Her letter is all I have left of her, and I read it over and over, as if like an old photo it might revive whom I really did love beneath the image that would fade. Some part of me really did see how beautiful she really was inside the illusion of her dark hair and liquid eyes, but it would take a lifetime of suffering for me to realize this.

If she’s still alive, she’s as old now as Yeats’ Crazy Jane, while I of course am at the age where never to find the woman of my dream I can search only for an awakening, the ancient city of my youth as broken as Troy or Mohenjo-Daro. We hurt and are hurt in turn, and the memories surface like flotsam in the wake of ignorance. Where else but in the death and life of a great American city do I find so many?


—From the author’s memoir-in-manuscript, The Artist and His Models


End Bug Issue 5

Peter Najarian

is a painter, poet, and author of three novels, a story collection, and a memoir. His work appears in numerous anthologies, journals, and galleries.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury