Saturday, May 9, 2009

Greenwich Village, Early 1970s

During the first few years of the 1970s, when I was three, four years old, my parents and I lived in Greenwich Village, New York City. We lived at Two Fifth Avenue, which sounds like a ritzy address, and is in fact rather gentrified now, but at the time it was not. The building was (still is) a low-rise apartment building across the street from the arch that marks the entrance of Washington Square Park. We could see the arch and park from our living room, and I remember spending long moments watching life pass outside the windows. It was some life. The most flamboyant memory from this time is of a tall man on roller skates who, on weekends, donned a pale orange chiffon dress and glided around the park waving a wand (at least, I'm pretty sure he had a wand). He was the "Peach Fairy," though I don't know if the name was neighborhood legend or just our own description. I remember thinking he was the greatest and being really envious of the flowing chiffon. It was a time of artists and outcasts, drug-addled bohemians and bums on the park benches. You couldn't go through there without someone hissing to see if you wanted to score some dope (actually, that was still the case in the 1980s). Today, in our post-Giuliani/Bloomberg metropolis, the park is quite clean, and parents think nothing of letting their kids play freely there. Back then, however, it was the turf of derelicts, and for the most part my mother avoided it, especially during weekdays. The sandbox, after the first attempt, was out of the question; it served as a giant latrine for the drunks. Perhaps this is why, to hear my mother tell the story (which she has many times over the years), the movers who had come to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where we were previously living, took one look at my mom—an articulate, well-dressed white woman who looked "normal" in every way—and at toddler me, and told her she was "nuts, lady!" because didn't she know, everyone else was moving in the opposite direction, out of the city in record numbers. But the thing was, living in Ridgefield at the time, my mother (who was born and raised and spent every year through her thirties in Detroit) was getting fed up. Fed up with homogeny, and as the last straw, with local book banning (or was it burning?). I thank her profusely for going against the tide and pushing to move into New York, despite the grit and grip of hard economic times in the city, plus attendant crime and social crisis. I remember being happy in the city, having friends of many colors and cultures, and I know these years were crucial in forming my world view. I don't really remember much about my preschool, other than the name: the Gingerbread School. I believe it was run as a co-op, and I know it was housed in the Westbeth complex on the extreme west side of the village—a utilities building acquired by a nonprofit organization for the purpose of creating an artists' community, where the likes of Diane Arbus and Muriel Rukeyser lived and worked (and, in Arbus's case, died). In this sense, I had illustrious neighbors and the beginnings of a true artist's pedigree by association. Who knows who else was around—not just at Westbeth, I mean, but sharing our space at other daily haunts; we went to Sutter's (no longer in existence) for ice cream, for example, and likely sat next to a struggling writer hunched there over coffee each day. Now things are different, very. We left long before the changes, thanks to an executive search that brought my father his job at Playboy and all of us a move to Chicago, but we looped back around eventually, and it became clear pretty quickly: the old New York of my early years is lost. Still, there is a mix of personalities to be found if you know where to look, a blend of eccentricities and lifestyles. When my son was born, a lot of people asked if I had plans to move out of the city. It's still an automatic question, and not without some merit. But despite how hard it is financially to live here—and now, economically, the city may well rival the nadir of the seventies—nevertheless, I think back to my own family's decision when I was a bit younger than my son is now, think back to the Peach Fairy and try to imagine him skating in the 'burbs (I can't fathom it), and I know that for now, this is still the place to be.


  1. cool story - i am also thankful that, for the first 25 years of my life, even though i was a child of greek immigrant parents, i lived on the very outskirts of a beautiful city, and had access to the best education and all the best libraries, which i miss terribly now in my small hometown

  2. The guy on Rollerskakates is semi-famous and is most likely known as Rollerena. Do a search for him using the name and "west village". you will find lots of stuff. the last time I saw him was in a gay bar on christopher street a few years back, still wearing outlandish garb.
    eddie, los angeles

  3. Thanks, Eddie! I will definitely look up "Rollerena" (-ina?). How fabulous that you saw him--really?!--only a little while ago. And likewise wonderful that he hasn't lost his flair for the outlandish.