Like any significant move in life, mine required both push and pull. What pulled me towards New York, and SoHo in particular, can be dated to several events but most memorably a frigid, moist English evening, one where the windshield misted up and the familiar scent of rain-dampened clothes occupied the car as we drove home from London. I had seen the Woody Allen movie “Hannah and her Sisters” with a group of friends and it was Downtown which seduced and whispered the possibility of an alternative path; the artist’s spaces, the haunting beauty of empty streets, a tantrum over a painting in a huge loft where a rustic bench from the sidewalk was the lone item of furniture, the intrigue of an artfully manufactured meeting in a book store between two lovers; it contained the drama absent from my life. Today if you were to watch this part of the movie SoHo is unrecognizable, disorienting even, without stores or restaurants, the streets as unpopulated as the surface of the moon; seeing this again recently I was struck by how washed out it felt, was it the film quality or my memory that had waned and faded?
I had travelled to the USA in the mid-1980 for the first time, arriving afraid in Boston to an incomprehensible joke by an immigration official regarding my last name and someone called Charles. Then travelling by train and bus to Philadelphia and Washington before coming back up to New York. Staying in the YMCA by Central Park I walked endlessly around the city, nursing a fantasy I was a photographer but ending only with copious banal photographs of fire escapes and the old downtown meat market. But on the second trip, now on business in the early 1990’s, some of the early promise of SoHo and the downtown scene was realized, staying for a few days in a loft on Wooster Street with a friend of a friend. We walked to Little Italy on the brittle sidewalk and had a comforting pasta dinner as there were few other choices in the vicinity in those days, it may seem now like the act of a tourist, but even Little Italy was a different, more innocent place in 1992 (although more dangerous) yet to be contaminated by greed and the eternal hunger for space. Something convinced me that I had to move here, at least for a year or two, to be a participant in this world, to soak in SoHo’s strange appeal and to walk through the poorly lite, steely cobblestones streets, avoiding the persistent scurrying of rats was exactly how I imagined Victorian London to be. It was made up of many large industrial building, often formed by cast iron structures, allowing for large windows flooding spaces with light. They were buildings with purpose, working buildings, and even then some were in active use, the sound of sewing machines richoched of surrounding buildings and ingenious wires allowing for thick piles of garments to be lowered from the sweat shops to waiting vans.
We moved in 1993 to the Chelsea hotel, fought constantly with the legendary manager Stanley Bard, taking turns in playing the bad cop and searched desperately for an apartment and Mary for a job. Even then there was the feeling that the best days of the Chelsea Hotel were past, despite the generously sized staircases and the dimensions of some of the rooms, it was shabby with wire hangers used for TV aerials and if the television stopped working, it would be replaced by one from the adjoining room, as long as the occupants were not in. I cannot understate the importance of TV for someone trying to assimilate into the USA, it informs in a way that is shocking to an outsider. The news on the main channels was bewildering, without any importance placed on other countries in the world, everything was local. And the insidious voices of capitalism everywhere, from some lawyers tempting you to sue to drug companies, to others attempting to prevent you from doing so with their extraordinary, rapidly narrated warnings on the potentially catastrophic side effects of their drugs.
Cell phones were not common and so we relied on the land line telephone, Mary in particular, while searching for a job and an apartment, and we left messages which were sometimes returned in the form of slips of paper handed out by the hotel receptionist sadistically a day, sometimes several days, later. In the evenings after work we would go out to dinner, walking around Chelsea turning our heads back every so often, with a foreigner’s fear of the reputation of those streets. We would sit in diners or Thai restaurants after an exhausting day and stare wordlessly at the cars and the neon shadows, marvel at the people on 23rd street, the Tranny’s, the musicians, the homeless. Or I would look down from the dangerously slim terrace onto the sidewalk and sometimes up or across to the other softly lite rooms. This hotel had seen the death of Dylan Thomas of pneumonia and Nancy Spungen by a single stab wound. Tennessee Williams and Mark Twain had both written here, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001 a Space Oddity and the film maker Stanley Kubrick was also a visitor, as was Dennis Hopper and famously the Warhol super stars, Viva and Edie Sedgwick, but it was the musicians that most impressed me; Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.
It was not enough to be a fan, to be guileless and passive, what exactly were we hoping for from this city? Did we think that some genius would rob off on us while we walked with their spirits along the long corridors or up on the elevators? Brilliance, we knew, is not gained by weak associations. Our own ambitions were recklessly unspecific; it was an interim space both physically and mentally, we were in suspense, neither convinced or fully committed, the six weeks we spent there was like a year, and we had to find a permanent space with our own things around us in order to move forward.
Apartment searching in those largely pre-internet days was either word of mouth or the classified sections of the New York Times or Village Voice. We found an advertisement of a small space in a tenement building in SoHo and went along to view with several other hopefuls but Mary struck up a rapport with the Italian landlady (who with her young daughter could have been the mold for the “Absolutely Fabulous” character Edina Monsoon) and we moved in a few weeks later. Thompson Street in those days was made up of a group of relatively low rise buildings for the immigrant working classes. It wasn’t unusual for clothes to be handing out to dry, or for two neighbors on either side of the road to pass on news by shouting across the street for all to hear. At about 4 am there would be the rattle of the garbage trucks like furious wild animals, and at weekend’s loud conversations late in the night from people leaving the bar on the corner. The apartments needed little furniture, indeed could not hold much furniture, but what we did get came from the streets. Galleries were moving out of SoHo and leaving behind Eames chairs, Danish Modern furniture and other objects to be picked up by the trash trucks on Tuesday and Thursdays. Most weeks we would be coming home with something, an ironing board, a small bench with we painted pea green and left on the roof and which I am willing to bet, indeed hope, is still there. This pocket of New York is agreeable for those of us from Europe; the smallness, intimacy and age of these streets is familiar for us unlike midtown and the Upper East Side where the skyscrapers make us feel inconsequential, like mice in a maze.
There was a single bookshop on West Broadway, Rizzoli, which we could pass many hours in. One day a nondescript man past us on the stair case and I caught the flash of blue eyes and didn’t need Mary to urgently tell me that it was Paul Newman hoping not to be recognized, holding a pile of books. We wanted to be in SoHo not for celebrity sightings but for proximity to the galleries and we had arrived in time just to catch the last few years of the SoHo art scene. Artists and Collectors still lived here, and I was in awe of how they lived, with wide empty spaces and furniture modest to the point of ridiculousness. The gallery openings were the focus of the social life, in these days all the big names like Mary Boone and Leo Castelli had white spaces on these streets, and we would attend most of them, plus any after party we could get invited to. Mary shone and sparkled at these events and I had the luxury to lazily observe the scene, but it was tiresome after a while and I craved the local Pizza joint and to watch the Duck Man arrive, an elderly man with a cart filled with yellow plastic ducks, a constant fixture late at night, a somewhat mystical signifier that the evening was over.
The artists were still there, we left our building one early evening and there was Roy Lichtenstein, walking as drunkenly as a silent movie character, being held up by two hysterical and beautiful young women and on an elevator from a friend’s loft the other occupants were a parrot and Cindy Sherman. We knew well enough to leave the successful in peace. It always the people that you did not see that you regret most, I never saw Warhol or Basquiat, or Bowie, but we did get herded into small rooms to listen to Ginsberg, and that was something.
SoHo now is a different beast, one that I visit at least once a week, but mainly to pass through from the West Village where we might eat to the Lower East side where we might visit galleries. But generally it’s a place to be avoided, because of the tourists, the crowds buying upscale clothes and make up, the Apple Store, a place you can spend huge sums of money on the things you don’t need but cannot buy a newspaper or a pint of milk. You need to walk on the roads at weekends to avoid the slow walking Scandinavians, the Japanese, they are pests we say to ourselves, and are welcome to this fakery.