NEW YORK — In West Greenwich Village in the early 1960s there was still a residue of the Beats . . . musty bookstores, the aroma of espresso, cool jazz, poetry all around.
A day there made you feel literate. The poets wore sandals and torn jeans, but they walked with nobility.
If you were an artist, this is where you went to think, work and live creatively. If you were a Brooklyn teen-ager addicted to imaginative adventures you cut school and took the subway to the Village every chance you got.
Celebrities hung out on street corners, revolutionaries fueled the heat. The sense of freedom had nothing to do with patriotism. If there was a wind of change, then it blew from the East Village. If there was a barometer of the city's cultural health it could be found here.
The crash came in 1971. The summer of love was long forgotten, an era of dormancy lay ahead. Overnight, it seemed that the Lower East Side invaded the East Village and forever changed the fabric of this mythical neighborhood. Winos, bikers and junkies gobbled up huge chunks of turf. Artists fled, the homeless proliferated, street urchins claimed the night. The whole scene turned ugly very fast. Then real estate people got hold of it and really went to work.
It was only fitting. The apartment buildings here are some of the oldest and nicest in the city. Real estate people first let the neighborhood die and then reconstructed it.
Starting at the Bottom
What has emerged is the "hot" new neighborhood of New York, the New Village, so to speak. One recent Saturday night I decided to drink my dinner and free-lance from club to club to club.
I had no itinerary. I prefer to start at the bottom, so I headed straight for Downtown Beirut. Not Lebanon but 1st Avenue. Between 10th and 11th streets.
One look in Downtown Beirut and you understand the name. The place appears to have taken a direct mortar hit and the patrons resemble car-bomb victims. The room is small, flat black and smoky. A juke box blasts the Dead Kennedys, Throbbing Gristle and the like. The walls are decorated with skeletons, Day-Glo mushroom clouds and other quaint reminders of impending nuclear annihilation.
Amid the bald neo-Nazis, Downtown Beirut oddly draws a smattering of secretaries, businessmen and bicycle messengers. It's the unquenchable New York passion to be where the action is, even if it is a war zone.
After waiting 15 minutes for the bartender to notice something other than her long black fingernails, I asked the guy next to me what it takes to get a drink in this place.
"Try setting yourself on fire," he said. He sipped his drink, thought about it. "Nah," he said. "Wouldn't work."
King Tut's Identity Crisis
A step up and a saner world is King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, Avenue A and 7th Street. Remember the address. Like many East Village clubs, there is no identifying sign.
It's hard to get a bead on this place. After several months of research I decided it's King Tut, not I, that suffers an identity crisis. Dark and boppin' like a '50s coffeehouse, part Day-Glo psychedelic like the '60s, maudlin like the '70s, erratic and superfluous like the '80s. There is an underlying restlessness to it, an unfulfilled promise.
In six months the regulars here will disperse and comb the neighborhood for a new scene. No loyalty. Nervous atmospherics in a disposable time. No cohesion. Sooner or later the reality of this city invades even physical space.
A good example of this is the Pyramid Club directly across the street. Two years ago this was the place. They set up barricades and only the "right" people got in. This included almost anyone . . . men who dressed like women, hot artists, hot musicians and junkies. Junkies get in everywhere in the East Village.
The Pyramid Club was fun, lively, gritty and sensuous. A neat place to primp and fantasize, to watch. It was punk fashion, yet it exuded warmth, luster.
That was two years ago, before the media noticed it, and the Jersey crowd invaded, and the limos streamed in, and condos started converting around it. Now the junkies, winos and bikers--true heirs of the East Village--have reclaimed it so that it's become little more than another derelict bar on the avenue.
The Aztec Lounge, 9th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, can be fun. Weekends, however, the Aztec is packed wall-to-wall with many who seem to be visiting this planet only temporarily. Black is still cool. Bleached and black hair, black boots, jeans, eyeliner. Disaffection is cool. Whirling in a black hole, touched by nothing. Anti-self, anti-everything.
To digest all this nihilism I settled into the Pharmacy, St. Marks and Avenue A, a pleasant, ambiguous eatery and bar that smacks of the Bay Area. Brunch here is excellent, dinner adequate.