Zen, White Noise And Late Night In New York – My Personal Soundtrack To The Formerly Mean Streets Of NYC


The Best Of The Zola System

Morning comes hard to New York City, with garbage trucks finishing their rounds and the rush of the first commuters of pushing through the hoards to make it to work on time.  The noise ramps up and the light casts a familiar brown pallor on everything in the city.

Dawn and the morning are not my favorite times of the day, It’s not so much the bad suits, cheap shoes and very bad cologne/perfume that melds into the natural brunt grilled cheese smell of New York City that rises in plumes mixed with the steam from underneath the city streets.  No, there are just too many knuckleheads coming from the land of the Strip Mall, all trying to talk like they came from Brooklyn in some 1940’s war movie.  It’s off putting, in it’s own special way, to watch the neighborhoods of New York overrun by outsiders decrying the current state of the city when it was cleansed and thoroughly scrubbed of any character(s) just for them.

Honestly, I prefer the night.  Not the part of the night where the red neon beings to shimmer and glow warmly off the days heat being released from the cement.  Although I love to watch while the commuters who are way too focused on getting out of Dodge ignore that piece of urban beauty, creating all kinds of white noise as they run to the train.  No, the part of the night I prefer is the very late night, when the people who are out and about are what the social workers call ‘those who live on the fringes of society.’ You could get just about anything except an audience with the mayor during the hours 1-7am, if you knew where to look for it; a drink, drugs, sex, a textbook for that class at NYU, Columbia or CUNY, whatever, it was all there, lurking about. It was also a time when, if so inclined, the mysteries of the limits (or lack there of) of human desire were there for the answering.

Before I came to New York, I was taken with the idea of the romance of the New York City night.  Velvet Underground songs, various beatnik literature, Mickey Spillane novels and those wonderful black and white pictures that Hollywood studios took of James Dean walking down Times Square and the old El trains going by windows of tenements turned me on.  Those same images that TCM runs in between late night movies; yeah, that’s what I wanted to be part of: the hard-boiled Zen of the late night New York streets.

I started to wander the streets at night from the third day I was in the city, adding the music from my Walkman as a sort of soundtrack to the places and people that would become part of my reality.  Sometimes seductive, sometimes lyrically beautiful in a downbeat romantic way and sometimes brutal but each and every event would burn itself into my indelibly into my memory.  The songs I had blaring into my brain becoming a personal melody and rhythmic soundscape as they mixed with the night noise.

During the cold snap last week my friend Wayne, overnight cab driver extraordinaire, came in to have a quick cup of coffee at a local bar I was having a pint in.  When I asked how business was out there on the frigid streets replied, “New York is dead and buried and the weather makes it really cold six feet under.”  Although I laughed, the vehemence of his response was quite sobering because I understood what he was saying.  The downturn in the economy was the final event in the desecration of what was a glorious, if dangerous, time of day in the city.  Gentrification, succeeding Giuliani and Bloomberg mayoral administrations washing clean ‘quality of life crimes’ and the massive influx cheap money during the last fifteen years has made even the most dangerous area of Manhattan a target of the upper middle class and above.

After Wayne went back out to hustle up fares on the street, I thought long and hard about my late night walks, what I saw and the songs that played at the time and amped up the memories.  Here is a list of a few songs, dates, locations and memories that the ever-educational New York City night bequeathed to me.

*December 1987, West 57th Street and Broadway Coliseum Books 2:15am. Song: ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ Fleetwood Mac.

The book I needed to quote from was The City of G-d by Saint Augustine but I didn’t have the Penguin edition.  The NYU Bookstore hadn’t carried the book although my professor had ordered it and the final paper for the class was due at 9:30 in the morning.  A friend told me about a 24-hour bookstore in Hell’s Kitchen and off I went, walking up Broadway to the bookstore.  Even in the midst of the holiday season, the Times Square denizens of the era were doing a fabulous business.  I remember being dazzled by the bright neon of the adult bookstores and the lights of Broadway all mixing into one.

Just as advertised, the bookstore was open and I got the proper edition of the book I needed to write the book.  However, when the clerk found out I had walked all the way up Broadway from 10th Street, he flipped out, threw me in a cab, all the while yelling at me for being a moronic hick from the Midwest who didn’t know what dangerous was.  He may have had a point.

*February 1990, Greenwich Ave. between Perry 7th Ave. South, 2:45am.  Song: ‘Sister Ray’ by the Velvet Underground.

I was dating Alison who went to Columbia and would catch the 1 or 9 Train to get up to her dorm.  However, she would never let me spend the night, something about class schedules and roommate issues.  One night while walking down Greenwich Ave. to 10th Street on my way to my dorm I passed Uncle Charley’s, an infamous gay bar.  The world suddenly went black and white and moved sideways as I heard the breaking of windows.  The energy of what was a bomb blast threw me forward about four yards.  I sat there on the dog shit laden streets of the West Village and watched the paramedics and cops roll up in force.  No one was seriously hurt, however, no one bothered to ask me if I was ok either.

*June 1992, the back end of Chelsea Park 10th Avenue and 29th Street from 1am until the sun came up.  Songs: the entirety of the Girlfriend album by Matthew Sweet.

My buddy Jim Kelly lived at the southwest corner of 29th and 10th in a shitty two bedroom apartment covered in cat fur but he only paid $500 a month.  New Yorkers will put up with a lot of things for good rent, cat fur, and dangerous neighborhoods that, in this case, a just turned out hooker stroll right outside the front door.  Jim and I used to cop heroin and snort it up while sitting on the top of the bleachers that faced 10th Ave.  The two of us would cheer the young girls on as we vomited into a bucket and nodded in and out of consciousness.  There was this one blonde who I would try to make eye contact with, although her pimp actively discouraged her from doing so, sometimes with the back of his right hand.  One day, she came up to me and asked if I was looking for a date.  It was the first time a half naked woman in a thong flirted with me.

*January 1996, July 1998, and August 1999, the southeast corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue 4:55am.  A shitty 24-hour doughnut shop diner right by the subway entrance for the A train, songs: ‘So What’ by Miles Davis and ‘Slit Skirts’ by Pete Townsend.

I loved this little place for the $1.50 two eggs, bacon and potatoes breakfasts.  Even after the joints on the Lower East Side raised their prices, this place kept theirs down.  If I was having girlfriend problems, feeling lonely or just having doubts about life in general and was wandering the streets, I knew this place would be open to feed me cheaply.  Plus the people, gay hookers, investment bankers, Kinky Friedman wanna-be’s, FIT girls who flirted with the male hustlers because they thought they were straight, a veritable moving circus out of an Andy Warhol wet dream.  Plus it always looked like some diner straight out of the 1940’s.

*Present Day, Stuyvesant Cove East 23rd Street and the East River, 4am-ish, song: ‘Roll Over Vaughn Williams’ by Richard Thompson.

There is nothing going on here at this time of day, nothing.  Apartment houses with no one awake, dorms, old 19th century buildings and a totally out of place gas station.  I go over to the river to see the detritus of the past hundred plus years floating by on the East River.   I look out at flagging lights of Brooklyn and hear the verse of the song that goes run for cover/things are bad/but now they’re getting worse/Live in fear.  Boy, that Thompson guy really had it right back in ’72.

A youth gloriously misspent, perhaps, but a massive furtherance of my education.  An education I wish were still available today.

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