The Sorrows of Young Worthless – A Conversation with Myself
An Abbreviated History of a Young Jewish Dropout’s Adventures in the Lower East Side
by Steve Dalachinsky
In memory of Steve Dalachinsky.
Steve passed away on September 16, 2019. This essay was written in October 2007 for a project about the Jewish history of NYC’s East Village. We had already agreed with Steve to republish the work online this week ahead of our anthology reading in Brooklyn on the 25th.
Where Night and Day Become One: The French Poems was Steve’s final published full-length collection. It was a true honor and a deeply inspiring experience for everyone at great weather for MEDIA to work with him so closely. His work also appears in many of our anthologies and he performed extensively at our events. Steve was an extraordinary, magical poet and friend and will be hugely missed. Rest in peace, Steve, and thank you.
It was always strange growing up Jewish. Is it a race? A culture? A religion? A species?
Born in Brooklyn, of working class, reformed Jews (house painter father, housewife, file clerk mom) and always desiring an artist’s life, I spent most of my time dreaming of living in a garret in the East or West Village, or Paris. Or owning a nice little brownstone with a white picket fence, marry, have 2 kids, and teach English. The former occurred much to my chagrin.
When I was a kid, like all kids, I wrote, drew, painted listened to, and made music of a sort, but somehow like most kids do, I never stopped, nor did I ever grow up. Besides singing doowop on the corner in front of the pizza place, I wanted to play drums like Krupa, paint like Picasso or Dali, and write like myself (whoever that was.) My mom always supported me as best she could by giving me music and art lessons (a very Jewish thing to do.) And I, being a baby boomer, with an older brother and sister, both of whom barely graduated high school, was the hope for the future. Well boy did that future ever get derailed since I became a first class dropout myself.
As far as the poetry goes I was writing that since I was able to write. Short stories too (a lot of sci-fi) which mom eventually, “accidentally” threw in the garbage along with most of my art work. Though illiterate in the arts herself, she’d always encourage me while at the same time discourage me, with such comments as, for instance, while looking at a charcoal I had drawn of a cubistic mother holding a dead child, “ Steven you draw so well but why do you draw such ugly things?” So much for her understanding of my psyche and passions. She much preferred the cats, dogs and landscapes I was “forced” to paint in that terrible art school on Coney Island Ave. Thank the art god for my later studies at the Brooklyn Museum. To this day, however, it’s still a mystery to me where all these creative genes and my mad obsession with the arts come from. Oh I have a cousin somewhere who was a cartoonist, my brother liked to draw a bit and my mom’s cousin Abe Vagoda became a famous actor, most notable for his roles in the Godfather and Barney Miller but aside from that, I draw a total blank.
Oops, I side-tracked. There’ll be many of them I’m afraid…
As I grew older I consumed more and became more consumed by the arts. These ideas of who I wanted to be like, solidified and modified slightly, i.e. I’d rather play like Max Roach or Blakey or Sonny Murray. Paint like Pollock. Ernst, de Chirico. But somehow always wanted to write and collage (another thing I do) like myself. No wait, that’s not entirely true. I want to be and create like everyone that’s ever been there and done that. Really? Yes.
But I digress once again. This piece is about learning. Ah, so what have I learned after all these years? Well to be one’s self at any cost. But first one must find one’s self. But why? Wasn’t “I” always there? Not really. One’s self is comprised of attrition of many influences, ideas and selves, even a bit of compromise sometimes. And that’s where this journey, this tiny segment of my life begins. The Lower East Side/East Village, being part of that journey and how it has, in the past, and continues up to the moment of this writing, help/ed shape my taste(s) and my artistic, social and political thinking. Oh, and my mood swings as well.
A lot of what I will say in this brief encapsulation will sound like name dropping but all of us have had those bigger-than-life, as well as anonymous, folks who have helped form who we are and are still becoming. For instance: Jesus had G-d. (Ha.) Oh by the way in case you forgot Jesus was a Jew, and a very good one too. Revolutionary. Independent. Ever-seeking. Knowledgeable, etc. Even kept a kosher table. He’d be a perfect candidate for East Village living / hanging, particularly in its major hay days, depending, of course, if his Dad had let Him. Boy, he would have been quite the cat to get stoned with and share a pastrami on club with. And me with one of the biggest Christ complexes imaginable. So much for Freudian thought (another fucked up Jew.)
Ok. enough already. Get on with the story. It’ll be quite a stone’s throw from the Greatest Story Ever Told too, I’m sure, but here goes.
I was attracted to the East Village because of the thriving alternative “hip” cultures and life styles it fostered and because of its diverse immigrant communities, foremost among them, for me, Black, Jewish, Russian and Polish.
For many years I ate in places like Kiev, The Ukranian Home, Vaselka, B & H Dairy, Odessa, and Theresa’s, thinking that these were not merely Eastern European foods, but, with the exception of pork dishes, recipes that paralleled those I grew up eating at home. There were blintzes, (the best being Theresa’s and Kiev’s in my humble opinion), pierogies, stuffed cabbage, lox and eggs, liver and potato latkes, to name but a few. Some of these eateries unfortunately have succumbed to huge rent hikes. (Boy do I miss Theresa’s tripe soup, (very treyf.)
So when did I start hanging around the ea(s)t village, aka lower east side? Oh, when I was about 15 or 16. Did I ever live there? Yes, twice in the ‘60s between the ages of 18 and 21, once in a boarding house on east 9th off 2nd Avenue, now fancy apartments, and for awhile on east 6th between B & C, now a garden. The building actually collapsed right after I moved to California in 1965.
And how did this part of town affect my life? Well if I promise not to ask any more questions and just let myself rant on I’ll tell you. Deal? Deal.
As I recall, when I got out of the nut house (the first place I got high) I was hooked on this gorgeous African-American bi-sexual chick and “fellow” inmate, named Donna. I went over to her pad on Allen Street. It was 1961 or ‘62 and by this time I had already begun to think that being an artist and being a miscreant went hand in hand. I smoked my first joint, saw my first cloths line full of diaphragms and had one of my many premature ejaculations and pot-related paranoia attacks. When she asked me what was wrong, as we lay naked in her bed (my first bohemian bed in the first bo-ho apartment I had ever been in), I lied and stated that grass always affected me weirdly, and from that day forward, it always has.
After that incident I spent most of my formative post-beat years between the west and east villages, getting high, writing poems, hanging out in cafes, book shops (Eight Street, Ghost, St. Marks, Peace Eye – all gone but 2 - and strange people’s apartments, listening to music, getting high, having sex, getting high. GETTING HIGH. Once even puking all over the tourists as I rushed out of a local café stoned on too much something or other.
A great deal of that time was loitered away on St. Marks Place, where I copped and began earning my M.F.A. in street smarts. Still pretty stupid if you ask me! St. Marks Place, like Washington Square Park and McDougal and Bleecker Streets, was the Mecca for “High(er) Education.”
One of my fondest recollections was the first time I actually saw/heard live jazz. A friend and I were floating down the street when we heard this really heavy music wafting out of a slightly ajar doorway on St. Marks Place. I stuck my head through the door to get a peek and saw this black guy pounding away at a piano. The music went right inside me and my head immediately received its second buzz. We tried to enter but were under age so we remained contentedly mellow and proceeded to drift further west. I later found out that the pianist was Cecil Taylor and the club, the second incarnation of the legendary Five Spot, long gone. Cecil and I, many years later, became friends. Seeing him play and hearing his musical language has been one of the biggest and craziest nurturing influences that helped shape my “artistic” soul. He opened up a whole new door of possibilities, both with his music, as well as his poetry and thought. He helped teach me how to hear, how to listen to and import special rhythms and modes of improvisation into my own work and above all, never to give up my artistic integrity. (Did I say that?) Lessons that I learned well, I hope, from him and the many others I speak of in this piece. And those I may fail to mention due to space and memory, who have helped to (un)shape “ME” in the many facets of what has become and continues to be/come my life.
Ok, so where is all this leading? Or where should I go with it? Or what does this have to do with Jews and the lower east side? Precisely what I was thinking! Well it does and it doesn’t. I mean I got most of my education in both ends of the village from the likes of Corso and Harry Smith. When I asked Gregory for a “poetry lesson,” while the three of us walked along Ave. B one summer night in 1963 & ½, his reply was “Shut up kid and go buy the beer”. His poetry helped foster the hopeless romantic in me, and his personality taught me it was ok to be and go beyond myself. The same was true with Harry. Others I learned from were friends like Chris L, his brother Jan, Danny P, and an entire host of born and/or bred villagers and scenesters.
So the best thing to do now would be to make a partial list of how unkosher I lived for most of my budding adult years, though very little has changed since those days. Here goes.
Some of the things accomplished by a self-hating Jew while living/hanging in the lower east side from 1962 to the present:
1. As already stated; smoked my first joint. Learned never to lie about drugs.
2. Copped most of my dope (on Forsyth Street.) Got beat more than once. But never beat up, not downtown anyway. Knock Wood.
3. Took my second acid trip. Watched a tree grow from my fingers. Wept for all the perished of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
4 a. Spoke to the great Charles Mingus in Thompkins Sq. Park during a free outdoor Fugs concert. He sported a big camera around his neck and was right behind me. When I turned and said “Hello Mr Mingus” he said, “Shhh, I’m not Mingus today, I’m a photographer.” A lesson in discretion and humility.
b. Once talked to someone claiming to be Kenny Dorham in a dark doorway across from the Psychedelicatessen. There was a great jazz club next to it but I forgot its name. Two amazing experiences for a Jewish boy immersed in Jazz. All but the park and the Fugs (ah dear Tuli we shared ice cream today) gone. Learned how to hang out more or less in dark doorways. A very Talmudic lesson.
c. Lest we forget, the home of Bird for awhile.
d. Got to hear Albert Ayler in a theatre on Lafayette Street (owned by Jews.)
5. To reiterate, had two of my first apartments in the East Village.
6. Saw some of my first and best jazz gigs at Slugs (1/2 owned by a Jew.) GONE.
7. Saw my first major rock gigs at the Fillmore east (owned by a Jew). Saw many other jazz and rock gigs there throughout the ‘60’s including such greats as Miles Davis and Joplin. GONE.
8. Saw Chuck Berry in the Anderson Theatre, backed by the Blues Project. It was once a Yiddish theatre. He commented out loud about “how those white boys” in his band “can play”. GONE. Dizzy did a similar thing, years later at the Henry Street Settlement, another great teaching institution. Two valuable lessons in “truth.”
9. Ok. Let’s not forget The Electric Circus/Dom where my soul got psychelicized. GONE.
Aside: At the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s I continued my music education at many lower east side clubs, of which are/were owned by Jews. Tonic and the original Knitting Factory being 2 examples. GONE. And as a member of the Improviser’s Collective and Vision Festival, 2 multi-disciplinary organizers, the latter of which is very much alive and thriving still in the lower east side, I learned about community and team work. Well almost.
10. Ate in Ratners, Rappoports, Yona Shimmels, Katz’s, the Second Ave. Deli, Sammy’s Romanian (what schmaltz) more times than I can count. All gone except Yona and Katz’s, until they get the “right offer.”
11. Ate my first kosher Chinese food on Essex Street. GONE.
12. Furthered my egg cream (a Jewish invention) explorations at Gem Spa (still thriving), the only place comparable to Bobbins on Ave J. and another great candy store on Brighton Beach Ave. and Coney Island Ave. The latter 2 both defunct. Yes, Brooklyn has changed a lot too.
13. Ate my first macrobiotic meals at 2 great restaurants, The Cauldron and The Paradox. Both owned by Jews. Both long gone.
14. Attended and gave my first poetry readings on the lower east side where I met and spoke with such mentors and great forces as lower east side “lifer” Allen Ginsberg, who was very open to conversation and whose work helped open up my very being, thereby teaching me to see more clearly and be more outspoken and to take more chances in my poetry. And by example showed me that reading one’s work in public in this day and age, especially for someone who was as out of the loop as I was, was a valuable way to convey the work’s importance.
15. Ditto, my early experimental film and theatre experiences. Some gone, though we still have La Mama, Millennium and the Anthology Film Archives, and for less adventurous folks The Landmark Sunshine Theater, once a Jewish theater. And viewing the work of such luminaries as Robert Frank (a Jew), Stan Brakhage, Rudy Burkhardt (a Jew), Ron Rice, Kenneth Anger, Ken Kesey and Arrabal. More people who helped inform my thinking.
16. Loved watching the hookers solicit in front of the then defunct synagogue on, I hope I got this right, Forsyth Street. Or was it Allen? GONE. (Now so many synagogues have been revitalized and some are used as homes or performance venues. 1 even got torn down recently in this crazy gentrification holocaust the lower east side is experiencing.)
17. And speaking of holocausts, I extended my history lessons buying shoes for over 20 years from a holocaust survivor husband and wife team on Orchard Street, her credo being “Don’t touch if you’re not buying” while he sat quietly in the back with his head bowed. And from my Jewish Vietnam veteran dentist on Clinton Street who learned to fill upwards of 50 cavities an hour while over in Nam. GONE.
18. And Hurricane Joe, who used to hang out in front of the Sunshine Hotel, a little tattooed drunk who could always predict the weather. He, the hotel and the bars we drank in, all gone.
19. Oh yes and east 7th Street. A street still filled with artists and musicians where as a young man I proudly drank in McSorley’s with the firemen, mixing my light and dark beers, eating leuderkranz cheese with onions on crackers, and great ham and turkey sandwiches and of course getting drunk and writing poems. Was even in there when a chick came in disguised as a guy. Ah the good old days. And right up the street was Hall’s Used Record and Book Shop owned by a sweet old Jewish man named Max (long gone) where in the 70’s and 80’s I bought and sold many lps and books – Max would take anything you brought him a pay at least 50 cents a piece for them. His walls were filled with photos of his family as well as such icons as Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, etc. I still regret not having bought that rare book containing a collection of Faulkner’s poetry and etchings for 5 bucks.
I feel like I’m in a 12 step program except I got up to step 19 and if I went on would probably reach 100 at least. Of the above mentioned places and people only a handful remain, the rest, victims of death, changing trends and the all mighty dollar, in many cases Jewish dollars, though money, unlike Judaism itself, has no religion or ethnicity attached to it.
Other lower east side neighborhoods, (and that’s just what they were and some still are), that helped form my multi-cultural habits range from Chinatown (where the First Jewish Cemetery resides) to Rivington Street, as well as the recently formed Little Japan around E. 9th Street.
Other venues that have helped shape my “Post Graduate” studies were ABC No Rio, Cuando, Neither / Nor Gallery, Ray Taylor’s Living Room, the Pyramid Club, Chase Manhattan Bar and Grill, CBGB Gallery, the Gas Station, WEBO Gallery, to name but a few. All but ABC have been swallowed up by capitalism.
At present, I hang out a lot at Fusion Arts Gallery, The Bowery Poetry Club, The Downtown Music Gallery, The Living Theatre, and The Stone (whose owner brought us such concepts as Radical Jewish Culture), a great independent music space. 5 organizations operated by Jews. Though by the time this book will be published Downtown will be gone due to a tremendous rent hike.
Oh and also to help spread race relations, in what has always been the melting pot of NYC, I spend much of my time at a multi-cultural arts organization called A Gathering of the Tribes, run by an African-American blind writer/professor, originally from New Orleans and a first class mensch, named Steve Cannon, who, like most folks in New York, thinks he’s got a little bit of the Jew in him too.
I can still, to this very day, proudly imagine my father swimming in the East River when he was growing up near Pitt Street. Smell the pickles. Watch the Hassids buy their palm leaves around Succuth.
I can remember, fondly and gratefully, all the help I received by the prominent Jewish organization, The Educational Alliance, where I studied poetry when I was a teenager just back on the street and closer to suicide and alienation than I’d ever been (still pretty damned close.)
So what did I learn and am still learning from all this? Well, I can honestly say, that without the rich and diverse art and culture that the Lower East Side afforded me, while passing from larva to adult, a majority of which was brought there by the Jews, I would not be the “informed” and fucked up person that I am today. Having, like most Jews, a thirst for knowledge and always seeking to find the answers to Zen koans (or cohens as I like to think of them) and Talmudic questions, both pretty unanswerable, has lead me always to further question the thoughts and feelings of myself and others. This thirst and accompanying hunger have also, with the help of all those greatly articulate voices of musicians, artists, poets and peasants that I met and still encounter in my sojourns, helped to form and reform what some have told me, is my own very unique poetic musings and distinct personality (shit was that difficult to spit out. Well actually it was suggested I add that statement to this piece by my dear Irish friend Jim.) Boy am I starving, I think I’ll make myself a chopped liver sandwich.
“I graduated but….”
Poet /collagist Steve Dalachinsky (1946-2019) was born in Brooklyn after the last big war and managed to survive lots of little wars. He was the recipient of an Acker Award for poetry and in 2014 was honored with a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. In addition, his collection The Final Nite (Ugly Duckling Presse) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. Where Night and Day Become One: The French Poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) was a silver prizewinner at the 2019 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Other books include Fool’s Gold (Feral Press), A Superintendent’s Eyes (Unbearable Books /Autonomedia), Flying Home (Paris Lit Up) in collaboration with German visual artist Sig Bang Schmidt, The Invisible Ray (Overpass Books) with artwork by Shalom Neuman, Frozen Heatwave (Luna Bisonte Prods) in collaboration with Yuko Otomo, and Black Magic (New Feral Press).
Dalachinsky’s audio CDs include The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, and ec(H)o-system with the French art-rock group The Snobs.