Thursday 30 September 2021

Incident on East Third

Going back to your old neighborhood is like returning to a country of ghosts. You round a corner and see a Puerto Rican dandy who once strode by in platform heels, now he’s an elderly gentleman shuffling along with a bag of groceries.

The street is East Third between Avenues A and B deep in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. You’ve come back to check out 179, your old tenement, for you’ve situated a new musical there, and you want to make sure your memory is not playing games with the facts.

The actual building hasn’t changed much, apart from a new door and a fancy system of intercom doorbells. Back in your day a visitor would holler out your name from the street and you’d toss down your front door key in an old sock.

You lived on the fourth floor and slept on a futon, most of the day the rooms were aglow with sunshine from the southern exposure and you were never happier.

A recent immigrant, you had the whole of your life ahead of you, and the vastness of New York to explore. Granted, the streets outside were dangerous and run by a heroin dealer named Jesus, but you were young and indestructible.

From your front window you could admire the full bloom of the magic garden. It had once been two rickety abandoned buildings. In your first year the city demolished them and carted off all the bricks and debris.

Some locals adopted the space and planted flowers, ferns, bushes and trees. They placed benches and a table within, and the city put railings without; now the magic garden belonged on East Third, but you no longer did.

The music hadn’t changed much. A mix of Salsa, Be-Bop, and Punk, it was like Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk and The Ramones were jamming in the same room. It shouldn’t have worked – but it did.

One way or another you got used to it, for you slept with open windows to catch the night breeze. The few air conditioners that functioned clattered along with the cacophony, the condensation dripping to pools in the cracked pavement below.

We didn’t need machines to be cool – we just were. For many of us hung out at CBGBs. If you were a player you paid no admission and could rub leather-jacketed shoulders with legends.

You saw The Ramones first gig there. Joey and Johnny were on speaking terms back then and used to consult mid-stage after each song. None of the 20 or so of us present could figure out if these guys from Queens were straight out of a cartoon or dead serious.

They’d soon show us! Who would have thought The Ramones would also create an enduring fashion statement by wearing ripped blue jeans because they couldn’t afford new ones?

The streets sparkled at night, though mostly with broken glass, and the full moons of Summer illuminated our East Side Story. When the heat got too much people slept on roofs and fire escapes.

Johnny Byrne slipped off my fire escape one parched July night and fell the four stories to the street below.  He sleeps peacefully now in Dublin’s Deans Grange Cemetery. Does he ever dream of East 3rdStreet so far away?

The winter nights could be brutal, especially when old furnaces faltered in the zero temperatures. We called them “bottle nights.” You bought a half-pint of liquor and took it to bed with you. Anytime you woke from the cold you took another nip for oblivion.

When things got bad you beat it up to Kingsbridge or Bainbridge; Phil at Nelly’s, Sean at The Archway or John at The Village were unlikely angels, but they could sense your need and provided many a gig.

You didn’t think much about money – rents were cheap, as were the six-packs at your bodega.

Alan Ginsburg winked at you, Debbie Harry once kissed you – though under false pretences, she thought you were a Boomtown Rat. What a life! 

Hemingway exulted about being “young and in Paris.” He didn’t have to go so far – the city of light had nothing on our New York – it was like living in a strobe-lit, street-smart fairy tale that you thought would never end.

Friday 10 September 2021

Remember The Lost - Commemorate The Survivors

I was checking the Mets box score when the plane thundered overhead. I slammed my forehead onto the table, certain my building would be hit. Moments later there was a thud in the distance, not unlike a giant sledgehammer striking concrete.

Counting my blessings, I rushed up to the roof and beheld an unforgettable sight – an airliner jammed into the upper floors of the North Tower, with tongues of flame darting out of thick black plumes of smoke.

The world changed that morning and New York City went into a tailspin. The once throbbing streets of Midtown were deserted - who knew what skyscraper would be the next target?

There was a need for normalcy, but what was normal anymore?

Well, for the “house band of New York City” it was simple enough. If we weren’t on the road Black 47 played Saturday nights at Connolly’s of 45th Street.

Talk about intense gigs! I can still feel the early aching chill that in the course of the night would morph into emotional abandon.

Many in those full houses were first responders who had come up from the pit, eager for drink, company, and some manner of release. But not for a moment were any of us unaware of what we were trying to escape.

Many who had been in the vicinity of the Towers were still deemed “missing” – their pictures, accompanied by scrawled notes seeking information, littered the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.

And every time Connolly’s door opened heads swung round and people rushed over to hug someone else who had survived.

And the talk would be, “John made it out,” or “Mary hadn’t gone into Cantor Fitzgerald that day.”

But after a month of such Saturdays it became obvious we’d never again see Michael, Michelle or the many others whose names we never knew.

That was the genesis of Rockaway Blue – to tell the story of the regular New Yorkers who hadn’t survived, and to commemorate those who had.

Even on those early blistering Saturdays their story was already being highjacked by the politicians, the media, and the barstool patriots who would lead us into their disastrous wars of choice.

Left behind in the dust and rubble of downtown were the stories of John and Mary, Michael and Michelle.

It should have been an easy enough task. I had the lives of friends like Richie Muldowney FDNY and Father Michael Judge OFM to draw on, and God knows there are so many broken hearts still desperately holding on to the fading essence of those they lost.

But for a long time the task was beyond me. Black 47 gave its all with the New York Town album, that contained Mychal and Orphan of the Storm, songs that captured some spark of those who didn’t make it out alive.

But that was only half the story. What of those who had no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on?

And so I turned to playwriting. And in The Heart Has a Mind of its Own, I created the Murphys of Rockaway Beach who lost their son, Lt. Brian Murphy NYPD, on the fateful day.

But though audiences liked the play I knew I’d blown it – I hadn’t come to terms with the complexity of Brian’s father, Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy, and the difficult relationship he’d had with his son.

And so I let the story rest but the memory of those galvanic September Saturday nights wouldn’t let go.

Finally I set the story in novel form, and it began to work because I could delve deeper into the characters of the Murphys, their stoic heroism, but also their human flaws and fractured relationships.

Years of frustration followed, flinging one draft after another at the wall, until one dark night I discovered that the story wasn’t working because I had made Brian’s mother a victim.

Despite all she had gone through Maggie Murphy still needed to rekindle the faith and love that might save her marriage.

And with that, Rockaway Blue finally knit together and became what it was always meant to be – the story of the regular New Yorkers who sacrificed so much, yet came through the tragedy of 9/11.