1. It was a Wednesday, I see now, looking it up, which I greeted from my friend Derek’s cold concrete floor on 203 East 37th Street. All the black drapes in the apartment kept the place dark well into the morning, save red lights and random bleeps from a wall of electronics.
2. I was still stoned from last night, where I helped Derek DJ a party for Skidmore students who rented a space on Jane Street. The apex of the partygoing involved playing “Walking on Sunshine” three times in a row while the party host, dressed in tan khakis and a rugby shirt, stood beside our booth, arms crossed. “Play it again,” he said to us.
3. Derek’s DJ company, Digital Ultra Sounds, promised the then-revolutionary all-CD, “all-digital” sets of music. As Digital Ultra Sound’s assistant DJ, my tasks included setting up two small pillows onto which placed two Sony Discmans to prevent them from skipping when a Kaslamantiano circle shook the floor at a Greek wedding. I also subbed when Derek had to take a piss. That New Year’s, I popped in a premixed MTV Party To Go CD, and held my headphones over one ear like a real DJ, and fake-beat-matched Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” into Candyman’s “Knockin’ Boots.” The Skidmore kids double-pointed at me and danced the Cabbage Patch.
3a. Derek had just moved to the city the year before. He called his apartment “The Studio” because was building a recording studio, but also because it’s an illegal sublet and his place is zoned commercially. In one corner sat a mixing board, speakers, microphones, and a set of electronic drums. In another, large tubs of marijuana.
3a. Someday, Derek would say the next Fear of a Black Planet or Ride the Lightning will be recorded in his bathroom-less, 30-by-30-foot room in Murray Hill. Until that day, Derek sold pot and DJs parties to pay the rent.
4. This might sound like I am judging my good friend, but the truth is I was jealous of Derek. Everything I learn about New York makes me want to move there more. A few months before he played Sega hockey against a Beastie Boy. He witnessed the Fat Boys record their cover of “Wipeout” in the studio he helped run. I may be the one who graduated college, but in my mind it was Derek who’s made it.
4a. By my fifth year of college, Derek had landed a modeling job and ended up on a billboard above a V.I.M. Jeans store on Lower Broadway.
4b. We stood across the street, admiring the 20-foot tall image of him. Two skinny chicks were curled up on the floor around at his feet, reaching up his legs like he was a god.
4c. And I thought to myself, I wear a tie to a proofreading job at Arthur Andersen. I make 11 dollars an hour. In Philadelphia. Derek gets to do modeling shoots, bang hot chicks and smoke all the pot he wants. Punk rock and hair metal have died on the vine, Freddie Mercury is dead, Nirvana has the number 1 album and the golden age of rap is over. And me? I’m still in fucking Center City checking the grammar on Arthur Andersen accounting reports.
5. Walter Benjamin uses the phrase “profane illumination” to describe surrealism, how to place language before meaning or even God is necessary for visions of the future. Maybe, I thought, it was time for my own surreal and profane illuminations.
6. Derek subletted his room from Lisa, a thirtysomething party planner whose 4,000-square-foot loft on the other side of the floor doubles as a space for Greek weddings and bachelor parties. A swan-and-cherub water fountain gurgled in the middle of the living room, surrounded by Styrofoam Doric columns.
7. Before we left for the New Year’s party, I used the hallway bathroom, and a woman dressed only in a French maid apron, and nothing more, was waiting outside. With a whip.
8. Get up,” Derek said to me. He kicked my legs. “Time for me to show you the meaning of the word respect.” He fired up Street Fighter on a 50-inch TV and piped it through studio speakers.
8a. I shouted above the 8-bit din of karate chops and percussed punches. “Do you know where Saint Mark’s Poetry Project is?”
9. “Never heard of it,” Derek said. “Sounds like a place where pussy poet-types like you go hang out.”
9a. As much as I’d like to stay and play video games all day, sitting around stoned in The Studio got old. Leonard, a poet who owned a bookstore in Philly, had told me about the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project, where they hosted an all-day thing on New Year’s, a marathon reading where anyone who’s anyone in New York poetry comes to read. Allen Ginsberg will be there, Leonard said. Others I’d seen in movies and books I read outside of class will be there as well—John Giorno, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka, Jim Carroll. I wanted to spend the day out on my own—to find my tribe, as hokey as it may sound; I wanted to spend the day as a poet in New York. “Could you just point me in the right direction?” I asked him.
10. “It must be on St. Mark’s Place, so that’s easy,” he says. “Go out the door, make a left. Then make a left on Third Avenue. Keep going until you hit St. Mark’s and make another left. St. Mark’s Place is only a two or three blocks long, so it should be there somewhere.”
11. A couple things, especially if you already know the directions Derek just gave me were completely fucking wrong.
11a. First: the internet wasn’t around yet, so cut us both a break.
11b. Second: people from New Jersey don’t bring maps to New York. Jersey people think a city map comes with their brains or appears there once they pass Exit 12. Or we tell the cab drivers where to go. It’s the Bridge and Tunnel Credo and we abide by it. Everyone I’ve ever met from the Midwest, for example, lands in New York armed with maps, tour guides, tip sheet printouts from friends on the cheapest beer or Indian food. Jersey people just show up and ask other Jersey people. Or we tail Midwesterners.
12. So I snaked by the Queens Midtown Tunnel traffic on 37th Street and took a left downtown on Third Avenue.
13. Murray Hill is by no means scenic, I know this now, but to my mind back then it was a stroll along the Champs Elysees. The bodegas and doorman buildings and taxis in dormant midtown, the closed-up curry places on 29th, the large intersections at 23rd and 14th, all of it was part of my own production of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, everyone sing-talking, and I was Catherine Deneuve, ingénue from the provinces.
14. “Everything becomes an allegory for me,” Baudelaire writes. That was the life I wanted to lead. I want to allow things to happen to me, to be the flâneur, the dandy who wanders the streets, open to each experience what comes. I wanted to allow myself to get lost, to make mistakes, to loaf around.
14a. I wanted to lead an allegory-filled life. I was 22 years old and walking in New York on my own.
14b. I got to Saint Mark’s Place and I turned left, and started to look for the words Poetry or Project or anyone with a piece of paper reciting a poem. Nothing.
14c. Halfway down the block, I start to get nervous. Where is this place? Am I lost? Why is St. Mark’s Place deserted?
15. It’s New Year’s Day, 1992, and I figured real New Yorkers were still sleeping or snorting lines of coke in their apartments. Why did I go out into the cold only to get lost twenty blocks away? And why did I get stoned before doing this? The tinnitus from acid jazz and New Jack Swing rung in my ear.
15a. Last night, after the countdown, I flirted with a beautiful Jewish girl. I knew she was Jewish because she asked me if I was Jewish. She only dated Jewish boys, she said. I’m not Jewish, I told her, but I’d be willing convert for her. That’s all it took for us to make out for a few seconds behind Derek’s DJ table. She agreed to meet me for coffee that night at a bakery on the Upper East Side. Telling her I was going to a poetry reading the next day only made me seem more mysterious, I’d like to think. As she wrote down the bakery’s address on a napkin, I imagined sitting beside her, twirling her brown curls, telling her I was already circumcised. We’d order bagels with shmears. It would be erotic in a sophisticated, Woody Allen movie sorta way.
16. I spotted a building in the middle of the block, its bottom half painted white. Down a half-flight of steps sat a circle of people, each holding what looked like manuscripts on their laps. This must be the place, I thought. The New Year’s Day Marathon Poetry Reading!
16a. I walked in. It didn’t surprise me that the attendees were mostly older men, or that half were black and the other half hippy white guys. This was the scene at most poetry readings. I spotted a lady in a Holly Hobbie dress who stood beside a coffee urn atop the table in the back. She wiped the drip catcher with a paper towel vigorously, like it was a precious stone. I found the first free folding chair and sat down and focused on the reading. Across from me a man was reading a poem.
16b. “I am now clean more than 60 days,” he said. “I know I can make it. I know I can.”
16c. I listened some more. And then I thought to myself that the work there seemed, well, pedestrian. It was hard for me not to be critical, having just taken my first graduate poetry workshop at Rutgers.
16d. The poem from the next person, his voice Barry White-deep, also had a daily affirmation quality. Where are the metaphor and images, the figurative language? I thought. I grimaced. Was this as good as the work gets at St. Mark’s Poetry Project? What’s going on? Here I am on poetry holy ground and I am thinking, I can do better than these guys.
16e. “Did you sign up for the reading yet?” Holly Hobbie stood next to me at the coffee urn. Everyone smoked out on St. Mark’s. The drip catcher was still attached to her hand.
16f. “I didn’t know you could sign up,” I said. This is my chance to be discovered, I think. See, I say to myself, being a flâneur can have its benefits. Like every aspiring poet in their early twenties, I just happen to have a printout of My Entire Collected Works in my backpack.
16g. I start to think: how many minutes is the set? Is it one poem or two?
16h. “This a surprise,” I said. “I thought the reading was only for famous poets.”
16i. “Famous?” she said. “This is open for all of our clients.”
16j. “Clients?” Why would the St. Mark’s Poetry Project have clients?
16k. As Holly explained to me the format of the reading, I concluded that this is not in fact St. Mark’s Poetry Project, that this was another place entirely. This was a place for people in drug recovery. The people here reading their poems were clients, drug addicts sharing their work to each other as they fought to stay sober—a particularly hard thing to do for some after New Year’s Eve, Holly pointed out. The coffee urn gurgled, let out steam. I took a cup, filled it with sugar and milk. Barry White voice guy pointed me in the direction of the real St. Mark’s Poetry Project, which was not on St. Mark’s Place but on Second Avenue.
17. When I was 22, those whole blocks in New York became an allegory for a confusion of streets and cars and possibility, a chaos that calmed me down. This is what life, what a city, should be. I found the place I was looking for, and it was only when I got there I realized the name of the place used the same word Derek and his building mates used: Project. The Poetry Project. This seemed significant to me then. It was so warm inside, with food and coffee and poems.
17a. That mistaken place on St. Mark’s, I found out, is the site of the Electric Circus discotheque, where Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground happened in 1966. It is also where I thought I would have my New York poetry debut in 1992. That night, I walked uptown to the bakery to meet the Jewish girl, and I ended up talking to another girl by mistake. She was going to meet someone on a blind date, and thought I was the guy. Her date came and the Jewish girl never showed up.
17b. It was only when I reached my destination that I felt every missed connection, every day that felt out of place, every interaction without words, every song I felt spoke to me; every poem I heard read into the evening cohered into the same flâneurian experience. Lying on the rug off to the side of the Saint Mark’s stage that day, all of the poems seemed addressed to me. It was all felt as one, a single poem.
17c. I went back to Derek’s and recorded crappy demos all night. It all made sense to me, all part of the same poem, the same song, which I would never get around to finishing.