My children decided to greet Sunday at 6 am. While it's not at all uncommon for them to rise this early (sometimes, they wake even earlier), it was an especially unwelcome start to the proceedings on this day. Peggy and I had been out comparatively late the night before at a cousin's wedding way the hell out on Long Island. By my standards, we'd actually kinda cheated and skipped the ceremony, which took place in Brooklyn Heights during the sweltering afternoon, but baby-sitting logistics made it nigh on impossible. To compensate for our absence at the actual nuptials, the Mrs. and myself took full advantage of the open bar. As such, by the time our Yemeni car service driver arrived to shuttle us back to Gotham four hours later, we were already in a state of what Rod Stewart used to call "advanced refreshment." Forty woozy minutes in the back of a sedan later, we arrived back at home, paid the babysitter and crumpled into bed.
When little Oliver's piercing cries obliterated the hopeful notion that he might fall back to sleep, I volunteered to take our little man out of the house so that the other half of the family might continue to rest; an offer that was stealthily accepted by the wife. Foregoing a shower, I slipped on a clean t-shirt, my camo shorts (unfortunately, these have become the maddeningly ubiquitous sartorial staple of the contemporary American male, but once upon a time, wearing camouflage was genuinely cool, I promise you -- just ask the Bunnymen!) and some sneaks, outfitted my little lad, slapped him in the stroller and hit the streets.
Unable to face the detestable Washington Square Park playground, even at this early hour of the day, I figured that Oliver and I would be better off just strolling around. He didn't seem especially against this idea, as he was rapturously chirping the utterance, "BA!" every few feet, for no readily discernible reason. Having not been to the neighborhood in some time, I figured that an early morning stroll around Soho might be fun. And early morning is really the only time to go, these days, otherwise you're likely to get caught in a slackjawed herd of lamentable tourists (is there any other kind?) and oily Eurotrash in expensive sunglasses.
While I'm a native New Yorker (as I'm keen to incessantly point out), I did not grow up downtown. But even as a bratty Upper East Sider, from the moment I first touched my Chuck Taylors onto Soho cobblestone, I knew it was something special. I still remember the first time my Mother took me downtown on a field trip of sorts to Soho to visit an artist friend of hers. This was invariably sometime in the late `70s. It seemed at the time like a totally different city, right down to its narrow streets and antiquated architecture. A seemingly forgotten, grotty backwater patch of Manhattan rich in the city's history, it seeme as if it was simply left to rust and erode. It slowly morphed from an industrial district into a cheap Utopia for starving artists, poets, musicians and aesthetes, who adopted the neighborhood, turning it into a playground of expression and re-invention.
From that moment on, I was in love with Soho. I loved the vibe of the streets. I loved that art was literally everywhere, as if the galleries were unable to contain it all. Not mere graffiti, mind you, but what was later dubbed "street art." Stencils, stickers, murals, enigmatic scribbles -- all over the walls and sidewalks and in the most unexpected places, as if Soho acted as one big concrete canvas for an army of nocturnal Picassos.
Years passed. I graduated from college in 1989, and was spending an increasing amount of time downtown. After my internship at SPIN Magazine petered out, I found myself bouncing between a few random jobs. I was writing and editing for a tiny independent music magazine that was just getting started (spearheaded by a writer I'd met at SPIN), I was acting as an assistant/gopher for a graphic designer friend of the family's and I was writing a music column for a freebie weekly newspaper called New York Perspectives. It was all a lot of fun, but I wasn't making a great deal of money doing any of it. As such, a fellow agent in the real estate firm my Mom worked for told me that an ex-boyfriend of hers was looking for a someone to act as a gallery sitter for him down in Soho. It sounded interesting enough, so I took the gig.
If I remember correctly, 55 Mercer Street Gallery was (and still is) the second oldest art co-op of its kind in Manhattan. Located on the third floor of a dusty old building in the heart of Soho, the place exuded an aura of endearingly shoddy bohemia. The artist who hired me was a soft-spoken, affable gent and practicing orthodox Jew (on certain days he'd refrain from using the elevator -- probably the wiser option anyway, given the shaky, shoddy state of the thing) who made sculpture. His art consisted of pieces fashioned out of thick tree branches, festooned and adorned to look like female torsos without heads or limbs (as if they'd been forcibly removed). Prior to the show's opening, I remember warning a girl I was dating at the time that the art was a little bit shocking and arguably misogynist, and she laughed it off. When she arrived and saw the stuff, her laughing stopped. It was an interesting experience.
I stayed on at 55 Mercer Street after that artist's show came to a close, and gradually became the regular sitter for a while. Shocking art notwithstanding, the job itself was low on thrills. Between the two main rooms, I sat at a squeaky metal desk. The only phone was a pay phone (this was well before the era of cell phones), and I had to bring a roll of quarters with me every morning if I planned on calling anyone. Unless I brought my own, there was no radio. Beyond that, it was just white walls, art and a claustrophobic little bathroom in the back.
So, as boring as it often was, I still kinda dug it. I loved being down in that neighborhood. I loved the feeling of being involved (however tenuously) with the fabled "Soho art scene" (as detailed in my favorite movie, "After Hours"). I loved the weird smell of the old building. It was easy to imagine it being the sort of place where The New York Dolls or the Velvet Underground might've hung out (however unrealistic that may have been). I'd often sit out on the fire escape overlooking Mercer Street in the roiling Summer heat. It seemed like the quintessential Downtown New York moment.
Being that the gallery was up on the third floor, it would often be several hours between visitors -- as who wants to climb three crooked flights of stairs or take their chances in a risky looking elevator to go look at art? Not many. If they did want to come up, nine out of ten opted for the elevator, in which case I'd have to buzz them in. If they took the stairs, they could come right in without my interaction. But, again, that was fairly rare. Most folks took the elevator. Once they got upstairs, I'd welcome them in, answer whatever questions they had if I could, and ask them to sign the book. That was pretty much it. So long as they didn't fuck with the art, we were good. Most folks just snooped around for a while and then split. Again, my position wasn't especially labor-intensive.
I vividly remember one afternoon when I'd neglected to bring my boom box. I'd already read my magazines and was bored with my book. I'd already run out to grab my lunch at the dusty little deli on Broom Street called Little Arfin' Annie (it doubled as a pet supply store). On days like this, I'd often sit down in the front room of the gallery against one wall, crumpling up sheets of paper into makeshift balls and throwing them at a fist-sized hole on the high end of the facing wall just below the ceiling. Rare was the shot that made it into said hole, but it did happen once in a while. After doing this for a bit, I remember getting up off the floor and humming. Humming turned to singing. Singing turned to belting. Walking between the two rooms, loudly crooning "Shout" by Tears for Fears with full, histrionic emphasis (while simultaneously using a broom as an ersatz bass guitar), I was suddenly shocked to find a quartet of German tourists who'd evidently walked up the stairs and had been in the rear room for it least the first two verses of my a cappella performance. I welcomed them to the gallery and then slunk back to my creaky metal desk, waiting for the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
I stopped working at the gallery by the end of the Summer, as I was off to pursue a more lucrative and promising career in journalism (yeah, right). Soho was already starting to change. Little Arfin' Annie closed and was replaced by a pricey furniture store. Gradually, more and more independent little galleries were getting squeezed out, replaced by boutiques. Big, billboard-sized advertisements started blocking out wall space that had previously hosted art (notably a huge mural of the Mona Lisa on the Western End of Broom Street.) Vacant lots where flea markets used to flourish started getting blotted out by shiny new buildings.
Today, Soho is barely recognizable as that same area I loved so much. I still stroll through it , and if I keep my head down, they're the same old streets, but the aura is gone. High priced hotels and glitzy restaurants are the order of the day. It seems like all the artists of long since fled, replaced by merchants. It's basically a big, outdoor mall now. But in the early morning, before the shoppers arrive to clog up the streets, you can still feel a slilght trace of the Soho that once was. You can still smell that slight whiff of re-invention.