The neighborhood store that invented the “egg cream” opened in the 1920sbecame Gems Spa in 1957. To the right, is the Electric Circus.
Nothing in the late ‘60s was ever as invigorating as drinking an egg cream at Gems Spa on New York’s Second Ave while the city in July baked like a tray of lasagna. Or, if it were Saturday, you could hang out at the St. Marks Bookstore, an inviting place where clerks might invite a homeless guy to sit for awhile before hitting the streets again. Or, you could catch a re-run of Citizen Kane at the St. Marks Cinema built in 1914, where no one minded if you smoked in the balcony or discreetly sipped from a bottle of wine. Evenings, there was often a free concert at Tomkins Square. (If we were too tired to walk over, we could hear the music on our rooftop we called Tar Beach.)
That was the Lower East Side, and it was paradise. No one called it the East Village until the place gentrified decades later. It was a city and a time when everything was possible as the Summer of Love rolled in. Now, people say the dreams are gone, like my $65 a month shotgun flat on Bowery and Fifth St. with the bathtub in the kitchen, the 15-cent subway fare, the free rides on the Staten Island Ferry. But, in a minute I’m going to tell you a secret about the “good old days.”
I had returned to the city after serving two years with the Army in Korea and Taiwan. Life settled into a five-day rhythm of work at Western Electric’s Kearny Works where I edited employee publications. I’d come home at night, take off my coat and tie and search out old friends — most of them artists who’d graduated Cooper Union and the Art Students League. Our go-to place was the Dom, the hippest watering hole in the city. The Dom had a quiet bar that must've been 80 feet long and, briefly, had a Scopitone, a video jukebox that showed 16 mm film clips to music. Later, the building was home to The Balloon Farm where Frank Zappa played, and then The Electric Circus.
On The Night the Lights Went Out — Nov. 9, 1965 — I was stumbling crosstown in a newly purchased pair of shoes. New York was really, really dark. Boy Scouts materialized to voluntarily direct traffic. I tripped over a grating and a stranger grabbed my arm, saying “Careful!” After dinner in my apartment lit only by plumber candles, I found myself with a few pals at the Dom. It too was bathed in darkness except for candles lining the bar. Half a dozen Sony Walkmans were all tuned to WMGM’s Peter Tripp, “The Curly-headed Kid in the Third Row.”
It wasn’t easy being an un-domesticated bachelor. Meals were often taken at a corner deli with a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring. On Sunday mornings, I treated myself to a knish, hot dog and bottle of Rheingold at Yonah Shimmel’s on East Houston.
With luck, there’d be a demonstration filling a street, the cause being peace, women’s lib or equal rights. And, if you looked closely, you’d spot the poet Allen Ginsberg in his cardboard Uncle Sam hat.
All around, there was harmony, a community of kindred spirits that stretched from Fifth Avenue to the East River.
Those days are gone, but maybe they’re better in memory than actuality. The nice part is that happy people still hang out on St. Marks Place. For many, the 1980s or ‘90s or Millennium are “the good old days.” Those times of bright memories are whenever you remember that kiss you stole in the theater balcony or the jokes that were unbearably funny or just seeing the moon rise over the Manhattan Bridge. Those days don’t mark a place or time; they’ve etched a place in your heart. But there are still egg creams at Gems Spa.