Jack Newfield: MacDougal Street at Midnight

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

April 8, 1965, Vol. X, No. 25

MacDougal at Midnight: A Street Under Pressure

By Jack Newfield

MacDougal Street at midnight.

Homosexuals cruising, pill-buyers waiting, transvestites parading, and tourists watching. Aging Kerouac heroes picking up Lolitas. Black-leather-jacketed motorcyclists gunning their growling motors. High-school kids looking for a party, drunks looking for a fight.

A cacaphony of sound: folk melodies prancing out of the cellars; barkers shouting their rasping pleas; taxi drivers honking their horns; the hoofbeats on asphalt of the mounted police.

The mingled aromas of sausages, pizza, horse manure, and gasoline fumes assail the nostrils.

There is tension. It is a few hours after Mayor Wagner announced his semi-annual crackdown on the "honky-tonk rowdyism" of the MacDougal Street area. The cops look jittery. Every argument seems to carry the seeds of violence. Even the laughter is desperate and metallic.

A pretty girl walks tight-rope-style along the curbstone, giggling, "Whee, I'm a beatnik. Come arrest me, baby."

A Negro tries to pick up a white teenager who is with several of her girl friends. A cop walks over and orders the group to disperse. The girl and the Negro walk off arm in arm, the cop shaking his head.

Joseph Marra, the owner of the Night Owl Cafe, 118 West 3rd Street, stands in his doorway holding a summons.

"Hey, you're a reporter," he shouts, "look at this, a summons I got tonight. Here, look at this! This is what I call a politically motivated summons. I just got it 10 minutes ago. Why? Because I had a salvation army drum. But it should say politics all over it."

Marra, still raging, believes it is the bars of the MacDougal Street area, not the coffee houses, that are at the root of the atmosphere that has ignited the current crusade.

"Look," he said, "come on in and look. We serve ice cream, coffee and soda. Nothing else. These are nice kids in here. But the bars -- they serve drinks to minors. They let queers and whores hang out. They have belly dancer. They get people drunk. The guys who busted up the Figaro got drunk in a bar first."

Inside the Night Owl a crowd of about 50, mostly teenagers on dates, listened quietly to Jim Bowie and the Blades sing "Marching to Pretoria," applauding politely at the conclusion. They seemed to be interested in the music.

"Let me tell you something else," Marra said. "The cops stink. Last week I saw a lady ask a cop for help and the cop told her he wasn't a bouncer. The cops are unwilling to make an arrest on a minor offense because they don't want to go to court on their day off. The cops shake you down, the Fire Department shakes you down. The License Department, too.

"This," he said, holding up the crumpled summons in his fist, "is harassment. They know I got a license for the drum. The cops, they are rotten."

Inside the Night Owl, a New York University junior had a more sociological view of the MacDougal Street controversy.

"The problem starts," he said, "with the Italian residents here, who just don't like the promiscuity and interracial aspects of the hippies. Then the VID (Village Independent Democrats) jump on the bandwagon. But because they're a bunch of liberals, they go after the superficials, like parking regulations, licenses, and closing times. The bad characters who come down here are drawn by the really criminal things -- drugs, prostitution, perversion. Not coffee houses, folk music, and soda. But the criminals make enough profits to pay everyone off. So the poor coffee houses, with no margin of profit, become the scapegoat."

At about 1:15 a.m. a small crowd sits attentively in the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street, listening to folk-singer Alix Dobkin. There are married couples, college students on dates, soldiers, and teenagers.

"No trouble in here. This is a wholesome place," says a waiter.

Outside the Four Winds Cafe on West 3rd Street there is a barker with a Beatle haircut, bebop cap, beard, and Salvation Army tag on his green raincoat.

"Come on in, see the show, folks," he tells each passerby.

When questioned, he admits, "Yeah, I know I'm illegal." A friend, keeping him company for the evening, adds: "Yeah, man, the liberals make him illegal and they say to kill people in Vietnam is okay. That's pretty groovy."

The loudspeaker from inside the Four Winds is blaring the ironic lyrics of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." "This guy John Hopkins," explains the bearded barker, "is the end, but he is too hung up on Dylan." His companion points out that the loudspeaker is illegal too. "Maybe it does more damage than non-lethal gas," he muses.

Inside the Village Music Hall on West 3rd a quartet called the Sellouts is entertaining about 25 patrons, mostly teenagers and sub-teenagers, dancing and swaying to the pulsating hypnotic beat. The group consists of three Ricky Nelson-type rock 'n' rollers with Greek god features and a fourth guitarist: tall, thin, with a beard, catatonic stare, and absolutely no sense of rhythm. The Sellouts have the Beatles' infectious beat and spontaneous buffoonery; also their own amplifier and echo chamber.

The Music Hall's owner is Al Galo ("Please, one L, or else they'll think I'm one of them Brooklyn hoods"). He says he keeps the Music Hall open only Friday and Saturday, "because I can't afford the summonses for seven days.

"I've been harassed by every city agency you can name," Galo said. "But they leave the bars alone. Look around here. Do you see any dykes or pimps or drunks? I got no liquor to serve to minors. Close all the coffee houses for two weeks and then you'll see it's the fault of the bars. The terrible things go on in the streets, not in any coffee house."

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]

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