Remembering New York
small world

My first few days in Manhattan -- way, way back in 1973 -- were filled with bizarre coincidences and deja vu.

I walked all over the Village and Chelsea feeling as if I had stepped into a movie set. It was a few days before Christmas, and for the first time ever I saw vendors roasting chestnuts on an open fire -- Mel Torme singing in my head. Every cafe and every brownstone I walked by were right out of paintings by Edward Hopper.

But before going any further, I must digress a little and write about the journey that took me there.

I hitch-hiked from Hattiesburg, Miss., leaving home on a cold December morning wearing a borrowed Army coat and carrying a change of clothing, a sketchbook and $100 in traveler's checks in a borrowed backpack. My brother drove me to a spot on the highway just north of town where I began my trip. Little did I know that my traveler's checks had fallen out of my backpack in my brother's car.

My first ride was with a couple and their little boy. They took me as far as Meridian. Then a woman in a sports car picked me up. She told me she was a prostitute and a recovering heroin addict on a state-run methadone program, and she was going to visit her boyfriend who was in jail in Atlanta. She stopped over in a motel just outside of Atlanta and offered to let me stay the night in her motel room. No, there was no sex involved. I watched her shoot up, and the next morning she told me she was going to try and break her boyfriend out of jail. She offered me money to drive the getaway car. When I declined to help her, she very nicely said she understood, and she went miles out of her way to take me to a good hitch-hiking spot on the north side of the city. I hope she successfully freed her boyfriend.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, except for the guy driving a Corvette like a maniac. I thought for sure he was going to kill us.
I can't remember all the details, but I definitely remember that I did not spend a cent between Mississippi and New York. Everybody offered to share their food, and the second night on the road someone let me stay overnight at his house in -- somewhere, I can't remember where. When I got to my final destination, not New York City but Newark Airport, I had a dime in my pocket. I went to an American Express kiosk to cash my traveler's checks, and that's when I discovered they were missing. Luckily pay phones cost 10 cents back then, and I had a dime in my pocket and a girlfriend in the city. She caught a bus to Newark and took me home, and I stayed with her until I found a job and a place of my own in a fleabag hotel near Washington Square.

For years prior to moving to the city I had been active with the New York Correspondence School, a loose conglomeration of artists and writers headed by the great Ray Johnson. Among the artists in the "school" with whom I regularly corresponded were a theatrical agent named George Ashley and an artist named May Wilson, who was known by a select group of artists as the Grandmother of the Underground. Seventy years old at the time, May had moved to New York from Baltimore after her husband died. She was a collage artist and one of the more sensitive souls I have ever known. I spent one wonderful afternoon visiting with her in her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, well aware of the storied history of the Chelsea and awed by the sense of being in the presence of greatness. I never again saw her after that visit.

Sadly, that's just the way things go. I got involved with other people.

I called George Ashley and made a date for dinner and theater the following night. The next afternoon I planned to see The Dancers of Bali at Lincoln Center. It was an early afternoon show. I'd have just enough time to catch a subway to George's apartment after the show. Standing in line at the box office, I heard the guy in front of me say to the ticket taker, "Tickets for George Ashley."

I couldn't believe it, but it was him.

That evening we had dinner at George's apartment and then took a cab downtown to see an Off-Off-Broadway play. Dining with us and sharing our cab was a theater critic from (as well as I remember) the Times. Over the next few weeks, George took me to so many plays and cast parties that they all become a muddle in my memory. One person I met who later became famous was Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theater Company. There were probably others whom I can't recall. I also remember an amazing party after a play at La Mama where we danced wildly until about four o'clock in the morning. All night long George kept introducing me to women by saying, "This is Alec. He's straight."

Of all the plays we saw together, I remember only sketchy impressions of one, and I can't recall its title. The main character was a dominatrix wearing black leather and spike heels, and carrying a whip. She was tall and beautiful and had a husky voice. Later, at dinner, I was intimidated by her. There was a chubby young woman in a skimpy costume who roller-skated around stage singing "Some day my prince will come." Her boobs kept falling out, and she kept stuffing them back in. Yes, I would remember that. And there was a very campy gay boy who drew great laughs when he threw a log in a fireplace and said, "Toss another faggot on the fire."

As with May Wilson, I soon lost touch with George.

Walking around Chelsea one day, I happened upon an intriguing little store called The Boggle Shop. Inside were hundreds of soft-sculpture animals and a skinny man with big eyes and a long nose. He introduced himself as Ed Preston.

Ed immediately recognized my Southern accent. "What part of Mississippi are you from?" he asked.

I said, "Hattiesburg."

He said, "I'm from Eupora, a little town up near the Delta."

"Yeah, I know Eupora. That's where my mother's from."

"Really? What was her maiden name?"

"Peery. Carolyn Peery."

"Was she James Robert Peery's sister?"

That didn't surprise me too much, because James Robert was a writer who had two best-sellers back about the time I was born. Of course a man about the same age from the same little town would know him. But Ed more than knew him. He said they had been best friends all through school.
Unlike George Ashley and May Wilson, Ed kept in touch with me long after I left New York. He was a writer and an actor (he did a lot of TV commercials), and an all-around good guy. He died in 1993. I'm sure May and George have also long since passed away. They were all a lot older than me.

copyright Alec Clayton 2004

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