On 15 April, 2013 I had an appointment at the U.S. Passport Office in NYC, located at Hudson St. and Houston St., in the West Village, to get an expedited passport. This was the neighborhood I lived in for about 30 years until I relocated to Atlanta in 2003. Those 30 years were the happiest of my life; my formative years, years of self-discovery, falling in love, forming friendships, learning about the world, trying to make sense of existence… I lived a relatively carefree life (interrupted by times of great sadness, difficulties and challenges, times of anguish and despair; we all have those), one of joy and wonder, exploration and deep introspection. This refuge, my apartment, was a sanctuary; a place to recover from the nightmare of growing up in New Jersey, in a family that often had difficulty expressing emotion or affection. Where discipline was swift and severe; unreasonable and irrational. I’m also very grateful to my parents, for the truly wonderful memories I have:
As a child I’d spend as much time as possible away from home, walking a few miles to Milton Lake to go fishing, catch frogs and tadpoles. Exploring woods, fields and swamps, climbing trees, building tree forts, finding box turtles, investigating old abandoned homes; picking wild blackberries, asparagus and strawberries. Collecting grapes, cherries and apples from long abandoned properties. My mom was an excellent cook; she’d turn quarts of blackberries or cherries or grapes into incredible pies and/or jam! My parents went to great lengths to maintain the fantasy of Christmas. Before my older sister and I went to bed, cookies and milk were set on the table for Santa Claus. They’d wait until we were asleep, then spend hours decorating the live tree and placing the gifts under it. Waking up on Christmas day, to the fragrant smell of a freshly cut tree, with all of the colorful lights, ornaments, and silver tinsel, was wonderful! Most of the cookies were eaten and the milk was gone; proof that Santa Claus was here last night! When my older sister and I were very young we’d sing Christmas carols around the neighborhood, on the nights leading up to Christmas ‘eve. I remember soft dry snow, piled high; flood lights, focusing on neighbors’ wreaths and outdoor displays, rippled along the snow drifts, causing it to sparkle with the appearance of sugar crystals. For Easter, the dyeing of eggs, hiding them around the house, and preparing the woven wicker baskets was completed by our parents while we were asleep. Waking up to see the baskets with chocolate bunnies, dyed eggs, yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans, all wrapped in colorful cellophane was so exciting; the Easter Bunny was here! These are memories that have always remained with me; very happy memories.
At the age of four or five, I loved to dance when the following album (Quiet Village) was played. This album influenced, to a degree, the styles and ranges of music I’ve loved since then.
Also at the age of four or five, I’d get out of bed before dawn, sit on the floor cross-legged, and meditate on infinity. I don’t know how I got this idea but I do remember this behavior, very clearly. Paranormal/mystical visions, spiritual awakenings/experiences were rather frequent from a young age, into adulthood. The most astoundingly powerful, beautiful, transcendent and profound being the impetus to create gratefulnavigator.com.
At the age of ten, an older friend of mine wanted to split his paper route with me; because I was a year younger than the minimum age required by the newspaper to have a paper route, he kept my portion in his name while I delivered the papers during that year. When I turned eleven the route was placed in my name. I delivered newspapers each day, after school, for five years. My next job was as a stock clerk and then as a cashier at a local supermarket. I’d cut lawns and shovel snow for extra money also. Having money to support myself gave me a feeling of independence; never needing to ask my parents for money for clothes, entertainment, a television, radio, phonograph, bicycles or transportation. During my high school years I frequently visited NYC; several blocks from home there was a bus to Port Authority, in Times Square. Often I rode my bicycle to the city via the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island, then hopped the Staten Island ferry into lower Manhattan. Other times I’d ride to a train station and board the train with my bike, to cycle around the city I loved so much. Chinatown, Washington Square Park, Little Italy, Central Park and museums were my destinations.
My apartment was a safe cocoon, especially from the memory of the trauma of my parents’ divorce, during my High School years. The divorce process was the culmination—and intensification—of years of familial dysfunction and personal depression; years of their indifference and denial. All is forgiven now, at this stage of my life; I absolutely forgive my parents. They were human beings who were once children. They carried with them the unique experiences, history and trauma of their upbringing. They did the best they could, in response to their world view and life circumstances. If we are sincerely forgiving of ourselves, that loving understanding is then naturally manifested in the ability to sincerely forgive others, in the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds. Most people wish to have understanding and forgiveness extended to them. We’re very complex beings; our desires, our awareness of time and mortality, our memories, our unique histories, sometimes cause conflict. It saddens me that some are reluctant to extend forgiveness and understanding to others. Having genuine compassion for those whom we feel have done us the greatest “wrong” is a wonderful gift to ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily need to translate into contact with those whom we have softened our hearts and minds toward. I am far from perfect, I hope others may extend forgiveness and compassion toward me. All of existence is a state of absolute perfection; infinite harmonic vibrations originate and dance, as One, within the miracle of eternity. No event, no time, is exempt from this universal perfection.
One must never allow oneself to be in servitude—or subservient—to others; to position oneself as “less than.” This ought not be confused with displaying genuine love, affection, respect, generosity, empathy and sincere gratitude toward another human being, as intrinsic equals. One ought not bow to others, in submission; human beings who desire, require or allow others to bow to them, to be subservient to them, have neither plumbed the wonderfully mysterious depths of introspection nor soared the miraculous heights of unimaginable joy. —Mark Van Allen, 2013
Reverie of Joy (The Dream Years)
It’s amazing to me, in retrospect, that at the age of twenty-one, I had my own apartment in the West Village; entirely supporting myself with clerical, recreational counselor or stock clerk jobs. It was shocking, really, the poor condition the apartment was in when I moved there. Walls and ceilings were crumbling, leaks from the apartment above were an almost daily occurrence for many years; literally thousands of cockroaches would scatter when the lights were turned on. The wiring was very old and there were only fifteen amps available to each apartment; outages and short circuits were frequent. There were small gas leaks throughout the building. Inevitably, during the coldest weeks of many winters (when the temperature was in the teens or twenties), there was no heat or hot water, often for a week or more. If there was gas, I’d heat a large pot of water on the stove, then jump in the shower and quickly run the cold water to soak myself. Then turn off the water, apply soap and get the pot of warm water to rinse. In the early ’70’s people were leaving NYC in droves, the economy was a disaster; graffiti was everywhere, there were garbage and transit strikes. It wasn’t unusual to see someone shooting heroin on the subway. All of this was tolerable to me; as long as I was in NYC, where I’d always wanted to be, since the age of five (the memory is crystal clear: my parents, I, and my older sister, were at Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree; I was wearing a tan camel hair suit and being held aloft by my dad. Looking around, I was determined to move to this fascinating city when I grew up.). And rents were cheap; friends my age (early twenties) also had their own apartments! From the first day I moved in, I slowly began fixing the place; spackling, painting, plugging holes, removing appliances. The landlord didn’t care about the building, whatsoever; that was sort of a good thing. Over the years I’d carry countless sheets of plywood and drywall; gallons of paint, bags of structo-lite cement, up the three flights, to renovate. The final design was perfect; custom made for life in 300 square feet. I learned to live in a minimal way, without sacrificing comfort or ambiance. Custom made overhead storage, with sliding doors, held power tools, kitchen appliances, gardening and art supplies.
I worked for United Cerebral Palsy at night, as a recreation counselor for a couple of years while attending NYU. After that I worked as a stock clerk in the shoe department and then the suit department at Brooks Brothers on Madison Ave. for about three years. Then I worked for Zim Israel (a global container shipping company) in One World Trade Center, for about two years while simultaneously working as a sales associate at Brooks Brothers on Saturdays. Life was wonderful!
I then left Zim Israel to become a full time sales associate at Brooks Brothers on Madison Ave., selling men’s clothes on a commission basis for the next fifteen years. At that time, their products and service were so excellent, that it was not a struggle to earn a good income. I loved that career. It was a classy place; with professional, knowledgeable, intelligent, courteous and helpful sales associates. We were motivated by an excellent commission (10% of everything sold. That’s it. No fine print. No disclaimers.); and a genuine love for the very high quality products and service that we were, without reservation, proud to represent. We enjoyed the wonderfully fulfilling opportunity; we were very grateful. The customer, while in the store, never carried any item that they were purchasing, the sales associates did. Customers could return any item, at any time, no questions asked; they received a refund, not a store credit, a refund! There were two sales per year: one in summer and one in winter. The sales associates’ skills and opinions were truly respected by management; management listened, and responded, to sales associates’ recommendations. The store was closed on Sundays and holidays.
My apartment was rent stabilized; I had no expenses associated with: a car (gas, insurance, repairs) mortgage, homeowner’s insurance. At night I lifted weights, attended performance art, went to concerts, roller-skated to the financial district to skate the smooth plazas (of the World Trade Center and corporations). During the ’70’s and early ’80’s the financial district was like a ghost town at night and on the weekends; Battery Park City hadn’t been built, this area wasn’t residential. The entire area upon which Battery Park City is now situated was like a desolate windswept wasteland; all of the excavated fill, from the World Trade Center site was there, covered with a thick layer of sand. It was incredible to walk onto the “beach,” and observe Manhattan from that perspective; amazing! On days off my activities were: working on my sculptures, renovating my apartment, visiting museums, galleries, Central Park, The Cloisters, going to movies, exploring neighborhoods in the boroughs. I shopped at Balducci’s and Dean & Deluca, the fish mongers on Bleecker St., Zito’s bakery on Bleecker St. (they only made bread, in coal-fired ovens that were never turned off), Murray’s cheese shop (on Cornelia St. originally), a tiny place with the best assortment and quality of cheeses. Raffetto’s Pasta on Houston St. sold fantastic fresh and dried pasta and ravioli, among other pasta-related products; such a marvelous shop! I’d go to Florence Meat Market, a very small butcher on Jones St., or Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market on Bleecker St. in the Village; knowing the people who worked in these local shops for years, by name, was really nice. The best selection of herbs and spices, even the most exotic and obscure, could be found at Aphrodisia on Bleecker St., originally on Carmine St. The owner, Joanne, was always friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable. I ate at small ethnic restaurants and local neighborhood places with plenty of character and great ambiance: David’s Pot Belly, Elephant & Castle, Pink Tea Cup, Cupping Room Caffe, Caffee Reggio, Peacock Caffe. Reminiscence, on MacDougal Street, was a terrific place for European and U.S. Army/Navy clothing! A real treat was to walk along Canal Street (browsing the hardware stores, Army/Navy shops, metal surplus places and Pearl Paint) and through Chinatown (excellent dim sum, the street vendors, small old shops, bakeries selling delicious Chinese pastries, such as moon cakes, sponge cakes and walnut pound cakes), the gritty and grimy Bowery (with all of the restaurant supply places, decrepit sad bars, lighting supply stores, flop houses, derelicts passed out on the sidewalks), Little Italy during the feast of San Gennaro; Little Italy’s grocerias with cheeses and meats hanging from hooks, mozzarella right out of the big pot of steaming hot water, bundles of fresh basil, home-made pasta. The aroma of fresh mozzarella, being smoked over fires in the alleys; the sharp smell of the burning wood teased my nostrils.
Grace, a woman who owned Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan St. (a very small Italian grocery where meats and cheeses hung from the ceiling, and fresh mozzarella was made each day. Trays of olives, marinated artichokes, tomatoes… Shelves lined with Italian pastas, cans of imported tomatoes and jars of sauces, anchovies and cans of Italian tuna in olive oil; loaves of Italian bread.), was a character straight out of a Scorsese film. There she was: older, short and heavy-set, with a gravelly voice and hearty laugh, always wearing dark, thick-framed sunglasses; behind the counter, gossiping with the older neighborhood women who gathered there. “What’ll ya’ have today, honey?” A large chunk of fresh smoked mozzarella; still warm and soft as can be, was first on my list, always!
The Italian bakeries, I love Italian bakeries. I love bakeries! My mind’s map of the city was punctuated with various bakeries: Greek, Italian, Ukrainian, Middle Eastern, American, Chinese, Indian.
The World Trade Center towers! Those beautiful buildings always served as an anchor, a semaphore; their expansive facades simultaneously merging with, and reflecting, large fluffy clouds lazily drifting along the incredible backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. Working in the World Trade Center was similar to being on a huge ship. As storms approach from the west, the infrastructure subtly creaks as the buildings gently sway. The high-velocity winds whistle and drone as they navigate the elevator shafts, plucking the massive metal cables, clanging in harmonic counterpoint. Years after Battery Park City was constructed, I’d ride my bike from the Village to the water taxi at Battery Park City. One of the water taxis went to Liberty State Park in New Jersey, directly across from lower Manhattan. The panoramic vista from Liberty State Park was awe inspiring! The sailboats and ships cruising the sun-lit iridescent sparkling water of the harbor, the World Trade Center buildings (their massive size was more impressive from this perspective), the beautiful blue sky and the clouds lazily floating overhead; the Statue of Liberty! I loved to sit there, in meditation; it was a calming retreat, for a couple of hours. The background music was the gentle waves of New York harbor interacting with the rocks along the promenade, the tugboat horns, the hum of planes, the seagulls cawing…
The topping out ceremony of 1 WTC (North Tower) took place on December 23, 1970; two years before I moved to NYC in 1972. I left NYC in 2003, two years after the towers were destroyed. The profound sadness of that event cannot be put to words, to this day. When I see the towers in photos or movies, my heart leaps as I recall the incredibly joyful years of living in NYC; simultaneously, my heart aches because of what happened on 9/11.
The very deep sadness of losing one hundred wonderful people I knew, to AIDS, from 1981 to 1993, cannot be expressed, effectively, in words. It all happened too fast, the number of deaths was overwhelming: friends I loved deeply, fellow gym members with incredible senses of humor and talent, vibrant co-workers of many years, and neighborhood shop owners and employees who made visiting their shops so enjoyable. During those years, walking around the West Village seeing people I knew, in various stages of the illness was a daily occurrence. There was no time to mourn properly; the pace of deaths was unrelenting. I recall, in 1978, sitting on the pier that juts out over the Hudson River at the base of Christopher St. It was a great vantage point to view the harbor, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Towers. I recall, very clearly, having a feeling of impending doom as I watched, in disbelief, the line of enthusiastic and “positive-thinking” gay men waiting to enter the CDC’s van for their Experimental Hepatitis B vaccine. This went on for a few weekends.
The architecture, old buildings, meandering streets of lower Manhattan, graffiti, grime, the smells of foods of various origins. The aroma of coffee, being roasted by small artisanal shops, swirling among the vortices of gentle winds. Burlap bags of bulk spices and dried herbs inspire a reverie of exotic lands and the spice trade, the fragrance of roasted chestnuts and caramelized nuts from street vendors’ carts beckons. Blasted by the relentless sun during sweltering summer days, the shimmering hot asphalt and car exhaust exhale top notes of petroleum; the bricks and metal of old buildings produce their own olfactory concoction and reflected heat, creating a Saharan mirage in lower Manhattan. The occasional oceanic breezes and subtle salty smells of the harbor and the Hudson River were reminders of this city’s maritime history. People from around the globe, native New Yorkers, the accents and languages, the subways, the activity; it was fascinating, it pervaded my senses.
The realization of another dream occurred in the mid ’80’s, a small gallery on the Lower East Side (the latest art “scene”), displayed my work twice; this was exhilarating!
The city was wonderful, mesmerizing! I lived and breathed NYC! My love affair with NYC has never diminished, ever.
With the lights off at night, gazing out of my apartment windows, there was a picture postcard view of 19th century townhouses on Waverly Place (my apartment was on Christopher St.). During the Christmas season they were especially impressive, with their period decorations; as snow gently fell, muffling the city’s noise and enhancing the vision, the scene was a most incredible dream. The aura of an earlier era was magnified by the other-worldly singing of carolers, who wandered the neighborhood; their songs softly echoing among the buildings! During the heat of summer, listening to jazz, world music and the blues (Coltrane, Weather Report, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Kool & The Gang, Milton Nascimento, Santana, Airto, Bessie Smith, Jon Hassell, Ahmad Jamal…) playing in the background, I’d sit on my fire escape, admiring the view of the Hudson River. While the sun set, it was fascinating to watch the changing colors of pink, lavender, orange, violet, red… slowly dancing on, and seemingly glowing from within, the clouds on the horizon. The brick buildings of the neighborhood would appear to vibrate while being infused with—and then fluoresce and reflect—the changing colors of the sunset. It was amazing to witness; a meditation, a joy!
There was a London Plane tree which somewhat obscured me within it’s canopy; it’s branches came right up to the fire escape, where small potted plants, including flowers and vines, always thrived. At night, during summer, with the windows open, sleep came easily while lying on my futon, listening to the distant music of the musicians playing in Washington Square Park, mingling with the muffled conversations drifting on the breezes, rising from the street. The comforting drone of traffic, and the occasional distant melancholy sound of the harbor tugboat horns lulled me to sleep. The lush fragrance of petunias and jasmine, carried from the fire escape to my bed on humid nights, was subtle and intoxicating. The aura and atmosphere of that apartment was magical, at any time of year.
Here I am, back in my neighborhood; the neighborhood I left in 2003, the neighborhood I loved dearly, within the city I fell in love with at the age of five. It is spectacular. I’m allowing myself the momentary fantasy that I had never left, imagining that I’ll walk to my 150 year-old building, climb the three flights, and enter apartment 3C: Shangri-La. I’m extremely grateful to have so many incredible memories of my life there! I’ve come to realize, in the intervening years, that Shangri-La is not a place, not a physical location. Shangri-La is within me.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see, that in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight. —Kahlil Gibran
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:
A triangular plot calls for a triangular building, and that’s what the Northern Dispensary is. In an unusual quirk, Waverly Place ends at the intersection of Grove and Christopher, but also turns northwest here to its real demise at Bank Street. Thus, one side of the Northern Dispensary faces two streets: Grove/Christopher, while the other two sides face Waverly.
From 1831, when the building was completed by local artisans John Bayard and John Tucker, to the late 1980s, free medical treatment was available at the Dispensary. Though the clinic itself closed a couple of decades ago, its old signs are still there. The Greenwich Savings Bank was founded in this building in the 1830s. In that era, this was indeed a “Northern” part of New York City. According to Dispensary records, Edgar Allan Poe was once treated for a cold here in 1837.