“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
I don’t doubt it for a minute, Hem, but I’d stack New York City up against the City of Light any old day of the week, particularly in the wild and wooly 1970’s through the mid 1980’s.
Not only was New York pulsing with exhilaration, you could have the time of your life for little or no money.
That’s not to say that present day Gotham hasn’t got its charms, you just have to spend so much time working it’s hard to find time to actually enjoy the place.
Of course, each generation makes its own terms with New York, but I have to say that mine got one hell of a bargain.
When I first arrived the city was reeling from debt and crime, and revolution was in the air. The Vietnam War was still in full swing, and everyone seemed to be protesting it.
Greenwich Village might have seen better days but the nights were electric. Black Panthers, Young Lords, Vietnam Vets Against The War, Official and Provisional IRA, gays, feminists, and every liberation movement worth its salt milled around the storied streets fueled by cheap booze and marijuana.
Most rented dirt-cheap, bath-in-the-kitchen apartments in the Far East Village and mooned around Tompkins Square Park by day. There were few bars east of Second Avenue back then, apart from some Ukrainian shot and beer joints that tended to be off limits to those of us with anything longer than a short back and sides.
Who cared, you could pick up a six-pack for $3, and from a comfortable stoop watch the world saunter by. The streets were full of action. Buskers played everywhere, and street theatre flourished, though it was often difficult to differentiate actors from audience.
Theatre itself tended towards the surreal and fantastical, for realism onstage seemed phony when compared to the actual drama on the street.
A junky once stuck an 18” bayonet in my throat whilst I was taking my evening constitutional in Tomkins Square. Nothing out of the ordinary, the real crux was how did I give him my few dollars without putting my hand in my pocket – which he explicitly warned me not to do for fear I would produce some weapon of my own.
It was a rare apartment that cost more than $200 a month – my least expensive went for $95 – eat your hearts out, millennials! I did, however, get cleaned out in my first week – but at least I wasn’t home to upset the burglars.
Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were perhaps the first band to play CBGB’s but The Bowery was so dangerous few of our following attended; after a couple of weeks we quit our residency and went home on vacation. A bad career move! When we returned Patti Smith had turned the barren bluegrass pub into the Mecca of Punk.
Despite our disloyalty Hilly Crystal, the owner, still allowed Pierce Turner and me free entry. Thus I saw The Ramones on their first appearance. The English bartender confided that they seemed like fascist thugs in their black leather jackets and torn jeans. He obviously had never met any nice Jewish boys from Queens.
After a somewhat bizarre on-stage performance Hilly banned me from the club – I may have been the only one to suffer such censure. I was never, however, 86’d from Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell, since I took care never to break the one house rule – Thou shalt not bore thy neighbor.
But since Turner & Kirwan were the house band I drank free there most nights of the week – probably one of the reasons Malachy is no longer in the bar business.
These salad days came to an end during Ronald Regan’s Morning in America. Rents were raised, Yuppies arrived, and something ineffable departed.
Ah yes, Mr. Hemingway, I bet Paris was a hoot but I can’t imagine it held a candle to New York. For what’s a stroll by the Seine compared to being the only one banned from CBGB’s?