I had one of those Proustian moments last week when The New York Times ran a story on preservation efforts in the Lower East Side of the city. Happily, they didn’t call it the “East Village,” named when the hippies left and the kids moved in using Dad’s credit card. The story included a photo of Gems Spa at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place in 1969. That might even be me — if you squinted — standing at the window waiting for my egg cream.
Marcel Proust immortalized the past in his recherche du temps perdu. I wrote Cruising the Green of Second Avenue to fictionalize those golden moments in 1969. In “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge,” published in Lunch Hour Stories shortly before the book came out, I relied on my memory to describe that “The long, sun-drenched evenings usually started with a group of us sitting on a stoop drinking beer. Maybe we’d go up to a bar. Then someone would suggest walking over to Second Avenue to get a bialy smothered in cream cheese and onions and pickled herring. Saturdays, there were demonstrations and protests to watch, but no one got involved. It was too hot, and carrying a placard was depersonalizing. Our Tar Beach was the rooftop on East Sixth Street. We'd wait until after sundown for a breath of air floating up from the river, and then, if we were lucky, we'd listen to the sounds of Country Joe and the Fish or the Fugs playing a free concert a block away in Tompkins Square. Always, there was the sound of drums echoing down the street.”
Who were the Fugs? A garage band without a garage, participants in the Peace Eye Bookstore, attendees in exorcising the Pentagon, and players of a certain amount of unexpurgated musical diarrhea. It didn’t matter what kind of diarrhea back then if you were stoned and the concert was free. For three decades I’d squirreled away a mimeographed copy of The Fugs’ song book, a treasure of the past.
Same week as the preservation story appeared in the Times a note also reported that Ed Sanders, leader of The Fugs, had written a new book. Lunch Hour Stories is out of business, but Ed’s still alive. The Fugs song book also has been preserved in the archives of the U. of Connecticut’s Babbidge Library, along with the underground comix I donated.
Time rolls on, but some things get caught in an eddy of the river. They’re preserved the way Carl Gossett’s 1969 photo of Gems Spa has been filed in the Times’ morgue. Ed is still playing with his group (http://www.thefugs.com/), whom the Voice’s Robert Christgau called “the Lower East Side’s first true underground band.”
At the conclusion of “Big Willa,” Jake says, “Willa had asked the universal question—‘You gotta hope, else, what’s left?’ And she was right. But I wish it were easier to believe in miracles and magic. That the dead will come back to life and long-lost lovers will be reunited. Instead, we go to the movies. We cheer Peter Pan. We click our heels together and bring Dorothy back to Kansas. I didn’t tell Willa that the Donnas come and go, illuminating us with a hot, bright light until they disappear into places like Atlanta. The Carolyns hit town as comic relief, and then they’re gone, too.”
If this teaser sounds interesting, send me an e-mail and I’ll send you a copy of “Big Willa.” You can also buy a download of Cruising the Green of Second Avenue at Barnes & Noble or other online retailers. And stop by Gems Spa for an egg cream.