Everyone has a St. Marks story — my first was smoking free hash after getting ripped off on bunk X. “And since the middle of the twentieth century, kids from all over the country, and the world, who wanted to be writers or artists or do drugs have come to St. Marks Place to find one another and themselves.” So says St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Coolest Street, the dizzyingly fascinating mostly-oral history by Ada Calhoun, which launches Monday, Nov. 2, at Cooper Union with free beer from Brooklyn Brewery and a punk cover band—the St. Marks Zeroes—featuring Ad-Rock.
Calhoun, who was lucky enough to be born and raised on St. Marks, told me the party (just one of several launch events) is “gonna be bananas.” She’s expecting a mix of old and new St. Marks characters, from Jimmy Webb of Trash and Vaudeville to skaters to drag queens to the Korean teenagers who hang out there now. “I hope there will be no brawls,” Calhoun laughed, sharing that the Sunday School teachers from Grace Church were coming as well as a bunch of anarchists from Tompkins Square Park.
But how did she get Ad-Rock, of Beastie Boys fame? “That was Adam’s idea,” Calhoun said, admitting that Horovitz and his wife Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) had been friends of hers for a long time. “I was at his house, and he said, ‘I was thinking about your book party, and I think you need a band.” He tapped her husband, Neal Medlyn, to get involved with The Julie Ruin’s drummer Carmine Covelli.
Since Calhoun was brought up in such a rebellious place, I wondered if writing its history was an act of conformity. She argued that the book is “aggressively not academic—so I don’t know that it’s all that conformist a history, ultimately. And maybe it’s actually borderline sacrilegious, because I say that the whole storyline of there having been one sole cool point in the street’s history back some decades ago just isn’t true.”
That’s pretty evident — just take a look at some of the characters who’ve inhabited the street.
1. ABE LINCOLN
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, then a little-known presidential candidate, gave a speech at Cooper Union in front of 1,500 people. George Haven Putnam described his “large feet,” “ungainly figure,” and “clumsy hands.” However, historian Harold Holzer maintains that the speech was “the transforming moment separating the prairie stump speaker and the presidential orator.” (Lincoln’s lectern will be used Monday at the party.)
2. DOPEY BENNY
The Lower East Side mob boss Dopey Benny Fein ruled St. Marks at the turn of the last century. He had started picking pockets as a kid, but he had scruples. He was pro-union, and an early promoter of women’s rights. From St. Marks Is Dead: “He routinely employed women; they infiltrated factories to ensure that strike orders were carried out and attacked scabs with hatpins and umbrellas.”
3. LORCAN OTWAY
Otway studied at Cooper Union in the ‘30s and moved to St. Mark’s in ’64 with his family. His building had previously been Scheib’s Place, a notorious speakeasy run by Walter Scheib and gangster Frank Hoffman. In the book, Otway shows off a copper wire that was linked to a bomb detonator—so the bootleggers could destroy the evidence if caught.
Otway also found two safes in the basement, and according to his son, he called Scheib and said, “I’m too curious to leave them closed, but too cautious to open them without you.” One was empty. One held almost two million dollars. “To his son’s horror, Otway let Scheib keep the money.”
4. HANDSOME HARRY
Harry Kamen had a two-chair dental office at No. 4 St. Marks, with an upright piano that he practiced between patients, and a day bed to kip on when he stayed out too late drinking to make it home to his parents’ house. Sound familiar? From the book: “Kamen called himself ‘Handsome Harry’ and bet on horses. Sometimes to avoid his creditors he would ask a patient to answer the phone and say the dentist wasn’t in.”
5. MR. ZERO
Calhoun writes, “He is arguably the first example of an East Village type that endures today: a man selling a colorful myth about his role in the world that’s more fun than the reality.”
Urbain J. Ledoux fed the homeless and indigent in the ‘20s, earning the name Zero by representing himself as “nothing but bread and water.” He got an audience with President Warren G. Harding, who “denied Ledoux’s request to publish a list of those who had profited most from the war.” When Mr. Zero left St. Marks for South America, he owed $7,345 in back rent (a million in 2015 dollars).
6. JEAN SHEPHERD
In 1956, Jean Shepherd broadcast on WOR AM 710 from midnight to 5:30am, doing commentary and “free-floating association of ideas,” speaking exclusively to the “Night People.” He got his listeners to go to bookstores to request a book that didn’t exist, creating such a demand that Ballantine Books hurriedly brought it out.
7. CARL SOLOMON
Infamous primarily for inspiring Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Carl Solomon lived at No. 7 St. Marks in 1950. He’s worth remembering as the force behind the Ace Books publication of Junky, by William S. Burroughs, the arguable progenitor of every addict confessional biography published in the last 60 years. Solomon wrote, “And who are you, you ugly skunks with your phony respectability. You punks in police uniforms, with your paranoid asses.”
8. ARNOLD FEINBLATT
Arnold Feinblatt went to P.S. 122 in the ’40s and tells the best “old man stories” in the book: “I had a choice between getting beaten up by the Italian kids or the Polish kids.” An early “urban explorer,” he and his friends tumbled through the underground tunnels dug by gangsters during prohibition, and crossed buildings via the roofs, too. “One winter, maybe ’48, a blizzard buried the cars in snow. We walked the length of the street on top of the cars, because the snow had filled in the space between them.”
9. GENE LICHTENSTEIN
Esquire literary editor Gene Lichtenstein sublet No. 77. from W.H. Auden in 1958, and in 1994 his daughter Miranda moved in between First and A. Gene says, “In 1953, everyone said, ‘You should have been here during the thirties! It was so great. It’s terrible now.’ And when I came back in the sixties, everyone said, ‘You should have been in the Village in the fif-ties!’ And I said, ‘Hey! I was!’”
10. SNOOKY & TISH
In 1977, St. Marks was deserted enough that Eileen “Snooky” and Tish Bellomo could afford a storefront—No. 33, for $250 a month: Manic Panic, the “first” punk store. Sometimes after gigs with their band the Sic F*cks, they’d crash at the store. From the book: “[S]ometimes seven people, lined up on the floor, sprawled on ratty secondhand fur coats, surrounded by roach nests.”
11. GUY RICHARDS SMIT
The artist Guy Richards Smit didn’t get a job at Kim’s Video, because he thought pornstars Ginger and Amber Lynn were related.
Calhoun writes, “In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus withholds the secret of his divinity from outsiders, and on St. Marks Place in the nineties, Kim’s clerks withheld the Three Colors trilogy from those who couldn’t pronounce the name of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.”
12. BROOKE ALDERSON
Brooke Alderson, an actress mostly from Texas, moved to New York in 1968. She had a day gig as a receptionist at the Kenneth Salon, where on June 3 she heard Warhol superstar Viva talking on the phone to director Paul Morrissey, relating the conversation to the rest of the salon. Viva held out the phone and everyone heard a “crack, crack”—Viva thought they were playing with a bullwhip she’d brought back from South America, but it was Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya being shot by Valerie Solanas.
Later, Alderson “wondered in retrospect if her cute brown suit” on her wedding day “didn’t make her look rather like an airline stewardess.” Still later, she gave birth to Ada Schjeldahl , aka Ada Calhoun.
13. ADA CALHOUN
“[St. Marks Place] is not for people who have chosen their lives—the married, the employed, the secure, the settled. The street is for the wanderer, the undecided, the lonely, and the promiscuous. St. Marks courses with sexual energy and opportunity. This perhaps more than any other reason is why people say that the street is lame and dead after they stop hanging out there.”