In the late 1980s I lived in New York City. My apartment was in Greenwich Village, in keeping with my basic philosophy of NYC. My philosphy is this; if you’re going to live in New York City, live in Manhattan. If you’re going to live in Manhattan, live in the Village. In my case, the apartment was on Bleecker St. Specifically, 177 Bleecker St. Three members of my band lived in the same small, roach-infested apartment, where our Super, a well-worn Jamaican named Johnny referred to my roommates and me collectively as, “Beeeeeaaatlessssss.” His voice was low and rough from years of smoking things he really shouldn’t have been smoking. It dragged on forever it seemed. “Beeeaaatles,” he’d say every time he saw one of us in the hall or on the street. For all I knew the Fab Four were the only band he knew. I’m not aware of him ever seeing us perform, either. But still, Johnny religiously referred to each of the three of us, individually or in a group as, “Beeeeaaatles.”
It was kind of flattering in a weird, not particularly productive kind of way. Still, flattery is almost always appreciated on some level, and we did appreciate the humor of Johnny’s perspective on who he thought we were, or who we might be in the future.
To be clear, my band never made the former Beatles sweat about their legacy. Not for a moment. Although we were pretty good. But that’s another story altogether.
The New York City memory I cling to most had nothing to do with music, or live performance, or much of what I was up to in those days. No, my favorite memory has a literary twist to it. I stood within arms reach of perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th Century, just for a moment. His name was Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle. Slaughterhouse Five. Deadeye Dick. Breakfast of Champions. Welcome to the Monkey House (a collection of short stories). Stories poured from his imagination, flowed through his fingertips, and found themselves on the printed page in my greedy little hands. And there he was, walking toward me, passing within inches of my left shoulder, then passed me by. I continued north toward 26th St. He sauntered to the south.
We never crossed paths again. We never spoke. Yet I can still see his tall, lanky figure, topped with an impossibly wild shock of curly hair, looking upward and to his left as he crossed the street. His gaze carried well over my head. He never noticed me, I’m sure. He was contemplating the Flatiron Building, I suspect. What else could have captured his attention so thoroughly?
We were crossing 23rd Street. Me to the north, and he to the south, as I’ve said. I noticed him with a start, and frankly I stared at him like a stalker. But I was no stalker. I was in awe. In fact, I’d read more or less everything Vonnegut had published to that point. I knew him from his writing. At least, I knew him as well as I could ever know a writer from his work. That is how I knew he did not care for being accosted in public. He didn’t appreciate fans of his work approaching him in public to tell him how enthused they were to be in his presence. He balked at their attempts to impress him with witticisms, or pithy stories that would show their appreciation for his work, and their worth as his peer.
All this ran through my head as Kurt Vonnegut, the one and only, strolled casually across 23rd St, headed south toward Greenwich Village, my Greenwich Village, letting his imagination soar as he put one foot in front of the other, apparently without a care in the world.
So I remained silent. I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t wave. I didn’t even nod in his general direction. I simply watched as he passed. Admittedly, I watched closely. If I’d had a magnifying glass, I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have whipped it out and examined him more closely in that brief moment available to me. For what reason, I have no idea. Thankfully I didn’t have a magnifying glass, and I had the good sense to remain mute. I kept walking. Never slowing down. Never turning around to see the great man disappear into the crowd ebbing and flowing like the sea behind me. He simply slipped away, as I did. On our way, as if it never happened. But it did happen and the memory remains to this day, nearly thirty-years later.
It happened right there, on 5th Avenue and 23rd Street. Right there in the middle of the street. In a spot I can still visit. In a spot I can call up on Google maps and view at will. The memory feels as fresh as it ever did.
And now you know.