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One Brief, Scuzzy Moment

In a strictly hedonistic way, Eileen’s Reno Bar was integral to the East Village community. A narrow pocket of surrealism on Second Avenue between 11th and 12th, its ceiling surfaced in plastic jade plant—brown plastic jade plant—Eileen’s had its flaccid nights of dead-room tone. But most evenings brought a steady influx of pre-op transsexuals, clueless walk-ins, bisexual drug dealers, garrulous drunks with a schizophrenic flair, Ricardo Montalban types from Europe lusting after chicks with dicks, and a few black-humored fags like myself, who much preferred the Reno Bar’s nightly Halloween party to clocking the aging process in some drippy gay bar. Eileen’s had the carnal whoop-de-do of a fetish convention. It was also full of crack whores working the track on 11th Street.

I once took a bar stool beside an enormous black woman I mistook for a drugstore cashier who’d rung up my toothpaste purchase that afternoon, which led to a dyslexic exchange of misunderstandings; I realized my mistake when she leaned close and declared in a tragic whisper: “You know something? My clitoris is as big as a penis. You know what I’m saying? My clitoris is the same size as a penis. I’m talking about a big penis. Can you understand what that makes me feel like?”

One Eileen’s habitué named Joel wore a walrusy mustache and the woebegone, sagging face of the chronically defeated. His spot was the last bar stool in back, where a hideous painting, widely assumed to portray the Reno Bar’s ancient founder, hovered behind Joel’s thinning hair. (There was, and still is, an actual Eileen: I saw her a few weeks ago on the Third Avenue uptown bus. Older, but ever a star.)

My friend Louie Laurita and I felt sad for Joel. Laconic and melancholy as he bolted down five or six G&Ts, Joel would haul himself out to his pickup truck and we’d see it hopelessly circling around at five miles an hour, until Joel returned, slumped and abashed-looking, to drown his abjection in more gin. “Poor Joel,” Louie habitually said. “Can’t even get laid by a whore.”

Around the time when the Barnes & Noble megastore opened on Astor Place, we learned Joel’s last name was Rifkin. Over the years, he had strangled seventeen prostitutes in that truck. Here we’d been trying to cheer the guy up, and he’d actually been having the time of his life.

It may sound a stretch, but I date the transformation of the East Village from when Jack Henry Abbott, a murderer who’d just been paroled thanks to Norman Mailer’s proclaiming him a literary genius, fatally stabbed Richard Adan, a waiter I knew who worked at the Binibon restaurant on Second Avenue, in 1981. It was the beginning of the end for that restaurant.

An obnoxiously trendy, moderately upscale restaurant named 103 opened near the vanished Binibon. It had stupidly angular tables and a snippy, impatient staff. It planted a proprietary yuppie flag in a low-income backwater where eccentricity was normal and having six bucks for a hamburger wasn’t. It was only a restaurant, the food was okay. It wasn’t Kmart. (We were spared that for another fifteen years.) But more upscale restaurants would soon sprout as the Art Mecca spread its vulpine wings. And already, with 103’s arrival, longtime residents understood that one day, gentrification would shove them out of their rent-secure tenements into Hoboken isolation, or possibly a refrigerator crate on the Bowery.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The globally hyped, short-lived phenomenon known as the East Village Art Scene originated in the basement of the building I live in. One day in 1981, through a doorway under the stoop, I noticed Patti Astor rolling paint over dingy walls, in a space I had long imagined the lair of elderly former concentration-camp guards—the only conceivable background of my landlord’s maintenance hires.

Patti was opening a gallery. In Charlie Ahearn’s movie Wild Style, she played a reporter whose car breaks down in the Bronx, where she befriends a charismatic group of graffiti artists. Patti’s character inserts these artists into the downtown art world.

In my experience, life seldom imitates art and certainly never improves on it, but Patti and her partner, Bill Stelling, did smuggle Harlem and the South Bronx into a veritably albino art scene. The Fun Gallery, which later moved farther east, really was fun. Patti served Lava Lamp–colored cocktails. The openings carried the sexy charge of surplus beauty in the room. The place was totally free of pretension. And there were actual black people there. (The endemic racism of the art world speaks volumes about the people who run it.) Patti simply didn’t care if she made any money: The point was to zap a little soul into the prevailing rigor mortis. Lady Pink, Futura 2000, Daze, and Lee Quinones, among other graffiti artists, as well as Renaissance goofball-wit Arch Connelly, appear, happy to say, in “East Village USA” and were all part of the Fun Gallery—long before the not-so-fun stuff happened.

That was, as the song goes, the start of something big. And the end of something small. Next, monkey see monkey do, more storefront art shops opened, a lot in 1982, and a full invasion by 1985. More, it quickly appeared, than enough worthwhile artists to fill them. I lack the memory cells to proper-name all the galleries whose press releases enhanced the horror of opening my mailbox. But I can recall what distinguishes a period of artistic excellence from a gas leak of mindlessly avid publicity. Consider what the otherwise sensible Dutch laid out for a tulip bulb a few hundred years ago.

The Fun Gallery spawned an embarrassment of epigones, mostly devoted to “Neo-Expressionism.” The original Expressionism, of course, had been an effulgence of audaciously painted imagery, aggressively wrought in thick impasto, reflecting the harsh historical upheavals of its time. It dispensed with the delicacies and preciosities of Impressionism in the same way that Dostoyevsky dispensed with the sentimentalized aspects of Turgenev. In these instances, innovation wasn’t primarily intended to negate the value of what preceded it, but to keep the recording of consciousness up to date.