Thomas Wolfe Was Right

By Virge Randall

I spent my formative years on the Lower East Side. Even decades later, its hold on me is stronger than a rent-controlled apartment lease.   Last summer, for instance, my brother Vinnie and I did a nostalgia tour; it was hot and I needed a pit stop.  As we walked east on 7th street past Tompkins Square, an ancient synapse sparked to life and flashed “It’s only a few blocks, I can wait till we get home.”

The Lower East Side is the Schrodinger’s Cat of neighborhoods, simultaneously Home and Not Home…not after Jenny’s Laundromat became a nightclub with a velvet rope and a bouncer and the corner drugstore became a vegetarian restaurant. (When I grew up there, people were vegetarians but not by choice.)

Recently, more and more New York natives and long-time residents have been mourning our hometown’s changes.  We flip memories of bodegas, dives, toy stores, and Cuban-Chinese diners the way we used to flip baseball cards: the older the better.

Sometimes these conversations become a game of one-upmanship, a kind of Street Cred Poker, like when I was chatting with a friend about old-school New York hangouts.

“Remember MK?”

“Yeah, way overpriced.”

“Lower Manhattan Ocean Club”

“Greatest hallway to the bathrooms ever, everything painted gold, even the floors.”

“Save the Robots.”

I paused. “Oh yeah, I said,” I’ve been there. Lots of times.”

“Oh, really?” I could sense the challenge in his voice.

I guess he couldn’t believe I walked on that particular wild side. In retrospect, neither did I.  The last time I was there, I was finishing a ‘girls’ night out” with a friend.  The door charge was steep for a limited cocktail repertoire, served in plastic cups, not glass.  The clientele was not the sort who should have anything that could be used as a weapon.

The floor was sticky and the music was loud.  The high point of the evening was a fistfight that erupted right where my friend sat, guarding my fairly expensive coat while I danced.   I think they were fighting over who would steal it. (Nobody won.)  The low point occurred with the most direct come-on in history since Cleopatra rolled out of that carpet.  A guy stood in front of my seat and without a word, unzipped his pants.  I was so astonished I could only say the first thing that came to mind: “You’re blocking my view of the dance floor.”

The song that made everyone clap and sing along had a refrain with words I was afraid to even think of until I was 16, thanks to the School Sisters of Notre Dame from my grammar school, two blocks away – and now an alternative arts center. “Alternative Arts” might be a modern description of some of the dance moves, but they would have compelled Sister William Marie to put an Exorcist on speed dial.

But that sort of reminiscence wasn’t what I meant when I said I had been there lots of times.   “Yeah. I went to Save the Robots lots of times,” I said, “…when it was a hardware store.”

The entire bar fell silent. If there was a rinky-tink piano it would have stopped playing.

I won that round of Street Cred Poker, but my triumph was bittersweet. Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. But you can’t go out again either.

1 thought on “Thomas Wolfe Was Right”

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