I spent my formative years on the Lower East Side. Even decades later, its hold on me is stronger than a rent-controlled apartment lease. Last summer, for instance, my brother Vinnie and I did a nostalgia tour; it was hot and I needed a pit stop. As we walked east on 7th street past Tompkins Square, an ancient synapse sparked to life and flashed “It’s only a few blocks, I can wait till we get home.”
The Lower East Side is the Schrodinger’s Cat of neighborhoods, simultaneously Home and Not Home…not after Jenny’s Laundromat became a nightclub with a velvet rope and a bouncer and the corner drugstore became a vegetarian restaurant. (When I grew up there, people were vegetarians but not by choice).
Recently, more and more New York natives and long-time residents have been mourning our hometown’s changes. We flip memories of bodegas, dives, toy stores and Cuban-Chinese diners the way we used to flip baseball cards: the older the better.
Sometimes these conversations become a game of one-upmanship, a kind of Street Cred Poker, like when I was chatting with a friend about old-school New York hangouts.
“Yeah, way overpriced.”
“Lower Manhattan Ocean Club.”
“Greatest hallway to the bathrooms ever, everything painted gold, even the floors.”
“Save the Robots.”
I paused. “Oh yeah, I said,” I’ve been there. Lots of times.”
“Oh, really?” I could sense the challenge in his voice.
I guess he couldn’t believe I walked on that particular wild side. In retrospect, neither did I. The last time I was there, I was finishing a “girls’ night out” with a friend. The door charge was steep for a limited cocktail repertoire, served in plastic cups, not glass. The clientele was not the sort who should have anything that could be used as a weapon.
The floor was sticky and the music was loud. The high point of the evening was a fistfight that erupted right where my friend sat, guarding my fairly expensive coat while I danced. I think they were fighting over who would steal it. (Nobody won). The low point occurred with the most direct come-on in history since Cleopatra rolled out of that carpet. A guy stood in front of my seat and without a word, unzipped his pants. I was so astonished I could only say the first thing that came to mind: “You’re blocking my view of the dance floor.”
The song that made everyone clap and sing along had a refrain with words I was afraid to even think of until I was 16, thanks to the School Sisters of Notre Dame from my grammar school, two blocks away – and now an alternative arts center. “Alternative Arts” might be a modern description of some of the dance moves, but they would have compelled Sister William Marie to put an Exorcist on speed dial.
But that sort of reminiscence wasn’t what I meant when I said I had been there lots of times. “Yeah. I went to Save the Robots lots of times,” I said, “…when it was a hardware store.”
The entire bar fell silent. If there was a rinky-tink piano it would have stopped playing. I won that round of Street Cred Poker, but my triumph was bittersweet. Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. But you can’t go out again either.