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In my words, May 13 – 19

I was looking through photographs, all in a mess, not looking for anything in particular, and found the one above taken, I think, around 1987. At first I thought it was Life Cafe, but the closer I looked I could see it was probably the east side of Ave B looking down toward Avenue C, and I must have taken it sitting outside of Life Cafe, on the west side of the street, wanting to capture the time and place, the dog and all the other images and words.

This morning as I did the laundry at 11th and B, I went to take a few photos of Life Cafe. It’s closed and I guess it’s staying that way. There were so many cabs, cars, and buses going by on 10th that it took awhile to get a clear shot of what is left of the place, those four painted animals remaining above. Soon, although I don’t know when, they will be gone. People were off to work, kids to school eating rolls with butter bought at bodegas, a father in a pinstripe suit all ready for work pushing twin daughters, smoking a cigar, iridescent green sneakers on ready to walk. More people than usual were waiting for the bus because a detouring 14 D was following the 8 going west up 10th to A. There are people waiting to left of the photo. In the photo you can see reflected in the windows trees in Tompkins Square.

In 1979 when I moved here, there was no traffic on Avenue B; more buildings were abandoned than lived in. Between B and C on East 9th Street where I lived about three quarters of the block was vacant, burnt out, and from C moving south and east there were several whole vacant city blocks with a tenement or two standing up. On Avenue C there was so little traffic, you never needed to look when you crossed the street.

I met David Life before there was a Life Cafe. What was to be Life, if I remember correctly, had been a used goods store where you could sift through all the junk, and find stuff. David was inside the store (you could still sift through stuff) painting on a canvas the image of a dog with a penis. David had good looks in a rather thin stern way that ended with a smile. I think it started out that Cathy, David’s wife, who would go on to establish the cafe as a restaurant after she and David separated, began selling coffee, cider spiced with rum, and marijuana brownies under the counter. She liked to cook; soon there was rice, beans and salsa (later on I would help her with a menu that included huevos rancheros and a chilled quarter of pineapple sliced and sprinkled with salt and chili), beer, tables and chairs, and poetry readings and performances several nights a week, and artists hanging up their work.

An artist I liked around the time of Life was Keith Haring whom I met when he had his first show at PS 122. We were both from Pennsylvania, Keith from Kutztown, me from Lebanon. The hex signs on the barns where we grew up influenced his work. It made sense to him that art could be outside on the wall, a very public work, perhaps even keeping away evil spirits. Keith always seemed like a shy guy to me, but he certainly knew how to get publicity, interesting opposites. Soon his little guys, his angels, flying saucers and barking dogs were all over the place, wherever you looked. I took two postcards when I left the PS 122 show that day. The one has been on the wall in my work room since then, and the other’s remained in the dark between the pages of a book. Can you tell which is which?

My favorite image of Keith’s was on a postcard that I bought, Untitled 1983. It hung in my bathroom until it was destroyed not too long ago when a pipe in the apartment above broke and came splashing down the wall. I’ve just looked it up on the Internet. It took awhile, but here it is.

Keith Haring is at my fingertips: images that will remain recognizable to humans as long as there are humans, in a generation, in a millennium: human, porpoise, metamorphoses, eternal circle, black sun, yellow red and black dotted sea destroyed but here again. Time is a funny thing. So much happens that most is forgotten. I think about it when I’m writing. What concerns me is not being understood after awhile. I wrote a sonnet that had a CD player in it in 2004; it’s outdated already; in a generation who’ll know what a CD layer is or be able to visualize it? If one is not writing for the long term future this might not matter, but I am.

When I put headphones on it’s like I’m deaf.
The world goes by silently on its own
like schools of fish in an aquarium
or New Yorkers who appear to my left
my right again almost like trash or leaves
scattered by a thoughtless wind. I am not
alone but it feels that way without sound
until my CD spins Carlos Vives
singing, clapped to my head, his song the world
all that there is: Colombian rhythms
that move my hips and rump along with them
till in my ears and all around me whirls
even the stranger who sits down to rest
drawn from the soundless crowd to this park bench.

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