Friday at the B+B Newsroom Rayya Elias, author of Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side, and Brendan Jay Sullivan, author of Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, The Lower East Side and the Prime of our Lives read from their recently published memoirs and talked about the changes they’d seen in the East Village and Lower East Side over the years. Play the video to watch the readings and conversation. And here’s what happened when an audience member asked the authors to compare the eras during which they moved to the city (the late ’80s and mid-aughts, respectively).
Brendan Jay Sullivan: I think the kindred thing about all of us who are writing about New York is that we recognize that we’re writing about things in terms of scarcity; like, there’s not enough good housing, there’s not enough opportunities, we’re all after the same great job. We all want — good God, look at dating in NYC. New Yorkers are people who are willing to put up with anything — including dating — to make it in the city. Stuff like that doesn’t just change because we have Starbucks and bigger glass housing and stuff like that… So, here’s the question: is there more scarcity (that I’m calling it) now that we’re trying to build as many goddamn buildings as we can or then when in your story there were empty buildings and there were cheap apartments but the good life, I would say, is just as scarce.
Rayya Elias: Look, when i was 23 and living here in a squat or in that $245 shithole of an apartment I thought my life was amazing. And I think that what I really loved about starting to read Brendan’s book it’s like the familiarity that we get when, in the first chapter he talks about Stanton Social. To me, in my book, Stanton Street was a place that was literally, you couldn’t even walk down unless you were in a posse or, you could not… He’s talking about clubbing up there and I’ve eaten up there so I knew, the visual was there. But I think the familiarity of those streets and the neighborhoods and everything that’s what drew me to his… plus his writing is pretty amazing, but it’s really great because it takes me back to when I used to walk down Stanton Street and there would be a blown-out car and where Stanton Social was I don’t even know what was there — I think it was an empty lot.
Audience member: Remember you had to take a cab to Save the Robots [the afterhours club on Avenue B]?
Rayya Elias: And the cabs wouldn’t even go, they would would get to Avenue A and they’d get to Avenue A and they’d say, “That’s it, you have to get out here.”
Brendan Jay Sullivan: Okay, I’m reading your book and every time you go to score you always take a cab and the first time I read this it didn’t occur to me that was the only safe way to get to and from, you know, Little Vietnam where you could get drugs. I was like, “Man, this lady’s loaded, I should take some financial advice from her, she rides cabs to and from!”
Rayya Elias: No, it was either bicycle or you had to pay the guy to literally wait, and we’d always go in twos because the cab would take off, so you’d always have to leave somebody in the cab with the cabbie with the door open so he couldn’t take off with your money because the minute you walked up they’d be like, “Screw it, I’m taking the…” or sometimes they’d just throw the $20 out the window and they’d just take off. But yeah, the attraction for reading Brendan’s book is like, “Wow, what became of this neighborhood?” I mean, I know what became of it because I literally recently moved out — maybe four years ago — of the neighborhood.
When I got sober in ’97 I swore that I was not going to let that neighborhood get the best of me and I moved back to 8th Street and Avenue C in ’99 just because I was like, “I’m coming back and this neighborhood’s coming back and we’re going to do it together.” I wouldn’t let it defeat me — it was like the monster that took me down and I was going to come right back up with it. And I remember going to this restaurant and I lived across the street (I think it was called Bao 111 or something, one of those fancy restaurants) and my girlfriend and I went there and I go, “Couldn’t get a table.” Second day: “Couldn’t get a table.” So I go up to the guy and I go, “Look dude, it was easier to fucking cop a bag of dope right here than it is to get a table. What do I gotta do to get a table? I’ve lived a cross the street for I can’t even tell you how many years! It used to be easier to get a fucking bag of dope right here!” And he was like, “I have a table for you, come right in.” And that was it, he let us in, and we were just like, “Wow, it has changed so much,” and that’s a good thing in a way and in another way, again, it’s kind of scary.