The Ex-Villagers | Pierogies, the Park, and Eventually Brooklyn

imageCourtesy Jessica Pilot Jessica Pilot (left) and Heather Holliday in
Tompkins Square Park

I think it was 1990. I was eating pierogies with my father at K&K Restaurant, which is now Neptune, on First Avenue near 12th Street; sitting at the table next to us was Allen Ginsberg. I didn’t know who he was at the time (I was nine) and he passed away shortly after, but it would become my earliest memory of growing up downtown. The East Village has a reputation around the world for being at the center of what’s cool and I was there, living it.

After our Polish breakfasts, my father and I would walk over to Tompkins Square Park, just a few blocks away. The park was dirty and crime-ridden, but in the East Village your neighbors looked after you. One of them told me not to touch the “spike” lying right there by the tire swing in the park’s makeshift playground. I never did try heroin, but years later I did magic mushrooms in the park and none of the crusty punks living there with their mangly pitbulls batted an eye.

My first job was as a cashier at Commodities Natural Market on First Avenue, near 10th Street. I was terrible. I got fired because I had a tip jar and a penchant for giving out discounts to friends, good-looking men and the aged. At 16, I already wanted to make a lot of money, so a tip jar seemed like a good start (oh, and it worked). One of the customers who got my 10 percent discount was John Joseph, frontman of the Cro-Mags. He was a hardcore vegan even before he “sold out” and wised up and got a book deal years later with “Meat is for Pussies.” I still see him shopping there.

I’d go to CBGB (now a John Varvatos store) using my fake ID, which was easy to buy on St. Marks Place, in a souvenir/drug paraphernalia shop that’s now a Chipotle. You could get your tongue and nipples pierced for the price of a burrito.

When punk rock was still sort of alive, the anarchy-fueled band Leftover Crack played a show that doubled as a demonstration against the park curfew. Bottles were smashed and five were arrested. There are still punk shows in the park, but now the grass is manicured and the pitbulls are outnumbered by dogs belonging to the new residents, who look as though they are visiting from the Upper East Side.

As the neighborhood got trendier over the years and rents went up, I moved around a lot. I lived with a hoarder by a methadone clinic on Avenue C. I lived with a cat lady twenty years older than me by the Russian baths. I moved in with a boyfriend who lived near Tompkins Square Park; when we broke up, I slept in the park one night. I lived alone above Veniero’s bakery. I’d come downstairs for a morning coffee and step over rats sleeping on day-old cheesecakes resting on cardboard boxes on the curb.

Lastly I moved across the street from St. Mark’s Church: every morning I’d hear church bells and crusties crying out for drug money. It was a rite of passage when I finally got up the nerve to tell off a junkie.

At the time, my rent was double my income. My neighbor, the novelist Gary Indiana, had been living in the building since the late seventies, and was presumably paying less. But I’d give him a Nat Sherman cigarette and we’d hang out on the stoop, venting about how broke we were.

I was deathly afraid that if I left, l’d miss something – or worse, be forgotten. But then, what’s the point of living in the East Village if you can’t really live?

Eventually I moved to Brooklyn. I found a larger space for a smaller rent, which is what lured the rest of the downtown denizens like me. I live with three people in a house with a fig tree out back, a washer and a dryer downstairs. Though it took me some months, I now feel at home. There’s a good bunch of emotionally unstable but well-coiffed 20- and 30-somethings living in my neighborhood and we all worry about money and the future, sure, but we eat dollar oysters on the half-shell nonetheless.

I like the quiet. I don’t even mind having to take the L train in order to get pierogies in the East Village. The churchyard at St. Mark’s now makes a good place to hang and eat fro-yo.

As far as I know, Gary Indiana is still living there.