Remembering the Bowery Before it was Hip
Last Step Down Or First Step Up?
by Steve Lerner
The streets of the Bowery are the bowels of America. Sticking out like an infected anus at the end of the island, the Bowery lays a fart in the face of New York. The stench carries for blocks, embarrassing the gentle folk who work downtown.
For me the Bowery has always held a kind of fascination. It has always been the tough part of town, skid row, the scene of unspeakable sins, and the place where nice people don't go. Since I was young I have always had a healthy respect for anyone who had been to the Bowery and survived. It seemed different from going down to the East Village and playing "down and out," where the poverty is largely self-imposed, a life style rather than a state of being.
The first thing I experienced on the Bowery was fear. It wasn't just physical fear -- some of the surrounding areas are more violent. It was the threat to my (remaining) Americanhood which scared me. I was Willie Loman, afraid of ending up a bum. I was the narc, afraid of addiction. I was the miracle of modern medicine, afraid of disease. I was the man of progress, afraid of hopelessness.
But as I came to know the Bowery and its people, I was surprised to see just how All-American it is. The archaeologists are right: you can understand a society best by looking at its refuse. America is the disposable flip-top can, the no deposit bottle, the auto junk yards, and the Kleenex generation. America is the Bowery because the Bowery is our human industrial waste.
"You don't drink. I can tell from your eyes. You have clear eyes," Ulysses tells me in the lobby of the Salvation Army at 225 and the Bowery. Suddenly the world divides between those who drink and those who don't. Seated in colorful plastic chairs which run the length of the waiting room are alcoholics or ex-alcoholics. The lobby looks like an emergency hospital in an old age home after an earthquake: crutches and canes lean up against the coffee stained walls, bandaged heads from drunken falls speckle the crowd, shoes are unlaced to ease the pain of swollen ankles, and the bathroom tiled floors amplify the common tubercular cough...
Ulysses is on the mend. He tells me about the years he put in on the streets of the Bowery, drunk and helpless. "But no matter how low I got I never lost that spark, that feeling that I could do better, that knowledge that there was a better man in me," he says. "At this point I'm doing all right. I'm buying my winter clothes, putting money in the bank, getting prepared for the cold. But I can't afford to think I have it made. That's the one thing I can't let myself do. I have to be strict with myself."
...Outside it's getting cold. For most of us the change in season means little more than a change of clothes, the end of fall leaves, and only 45 more shopping days till Christmas. But for the alkies on the Bowery, winter is a terrible reality. Ulysses says it with pride: "I've prepared for winter." Others are less prudent. Walking up around the Muni at six one morning, I pause to light a match for the scrounged cigarette of one of the bums who has come around for breakfast. His hands shake as he holds the wet stub to his lips. I'm afraid to light it for fear of burning his face. His shoulders catch the tremble from his hands, the cigarette falls from his mouth, and we have to start over. This time it's a cough which interrupts us for the length of a match in the wind. On the third try, he takes fire, sucks greedily at the wet, burning, stub of tobacco, and nods to me in thanks. We start talking, him eyeing my warm jacket, me looking at his threadbare summer coat. "I'm going to die this winter," he says matter-of-factly, as if he had accepted the idea many winters ago. He means it. He has meant it each winter. It isn't a sob story for a dime, or self pity, he is merely speaking his mind...
[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.]