It was June 1st, 1971: still 18 years old, I’d signed a lease with no guarantors for a four room tenement apartment at 505 West 122nd Street, complete with mice and roaches just off heroin-ridden Amsterdam Avenue. Dormitory life was not for me at Columbia College, where I’d matriculated almost two years before. I had a clerical job in a sheet music warehouse across from the storied Needle Park next door to Plato’s Retreat for the summer at $2.25 an hour, and my hometown Oak Ridge TN girlfriend Linda would split the rent with me for the summer before my three male roomies moved in in September and she went out to Arcosanti in AZ. Thus the circle began its course. 46 years later I’ve come 360. I’ve moved into an apartment a block away. Things have so changed and so have I. But the feeling of return and redemption is sweet, so powerful, the sense of familiar bricks, memories so deep and pleasant they smell like roses, albeit with thorns that remain sharp to this day, pricking my conscience and memory with drops of blood, as they pierce my mind and body each day.
One evening in the spring of 1976, about to graduate from Columbia Law School, I ventured up the Belgian block-paved street to enter 529 West 122nd Street, a haunted, vacant tenement house of 240 apartments, owned by The Jewish Theological Seminary and readied to be demolished (along with its twin at 540 West 123rd Street) to construct its new library and courtyard.
529 West 122nd Street: 1940, courtesy of The New York City Municipal Archives
I and my Vietnam vet and draft dodger buddies from my crummy building at 505 made a habit of entering the vacant, unlocked apartments at night with flashlights, scavenging for abandoned furniture, utensils, anything interesting and useful. Out we carted desks and chairs, shrimp cocktail glasses, hardware under cover of darkness, naively recycling the flotsam and jetsam of lives unknown to us.
That March evening, though, fate gripped us with its mighty hands. There we stood, frozen, as the torches of four cops from the 26th Precinct shined on our heads and their angry voices filled the air. “Freeze, don’t move, you’re under arrest” rang out. We turned to face four revolvers, trigger-ready, pointed straight at our frightened heads. Slowly the cops approached us, brandishing handcuffs, and in a trice we were manacled and led to two squad cars and hustled off to the station house for processing.
Each of us was cuffed to the rail, the other hand released from the cuffs. The sergeant’s desk was empty as was the entire room in which it sat, and one by one we were led into a squad room for interrogation. It was Friday night, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, and some snitch who lived across the street had spotted our flashlights’ glare had ratted on us, provoking a swift response from the doughnut-dressing gendarmerie.
First they led my flak-jacket clad, long-haired buddy Richie in for questioning while I stood alone in the entry room, eavesdropping on their contemptuous questions. It was not many years since the SDS/Columbia student uprisings of the spring of ’68 led by the infamous Mark Rudd, and fewer still since the May Day protests of 1970 over LBJ’s bombing of Cambodia. Pigs remained pigs in our eyes, and cops still detested us like vermin.
“What do you think you’re doing in that building,” and “why are trespassing onto private property” rang out. Richie’s pockets were searched and the cops smirked and guffawed as they emptied his jacket of said shrimp cocktail glasses, the cheap little ones we used to buy with tin pry-off lids. Along came carpenter’s nails and miscellaneous silverware. Quite a bunch of thieves we were, liberating garbage, in the view of the law. Useless kooks we were to them, queer as three dollar bills with our long hair and leftist beliefs. Trump was 32 then, just starting his first big win in NYC, the Grand Central Hyatt, fund with enormous government support. We paid him no attention, that upstart devil in the making. He was on a different trajectory, one that has ended in American disaster.
While waiting for my friend to return to the bar at the sergeant’s desk, I suddenly realized that I had a joint in the pocket of my khaki Army surplus shirt. Woe would be unto me, in the days of the Rockefeller drug laws enacted in 1973: possession of modest amounts of cannabis could mean 25 years to life, up the river. A single joint merited less but nonetheless severe punishment, but the prospects were daunting. Later research by me after our little adventure ended disclosed that were were also guilty of a Class D felony: entering even an unlocked dwelling with intent to commit larceny was burglary, more years hammering out license plates than I care to dwell upon now. I was so dumb. . But no one was around at the sergeant’s desk, and no cams existed in those days. I thought of swallowing my precious stick but found the prospect distasteful. My tighty whiteys had room to spare and surely the bulls would not go there in their fearful homophobia. Looking around, I took my chance and palmed the joint, sticking it below my belt then stuffed it in. Out came Richie and in I was led alone to the same derision. But the trick was on and I emerged un-detected and un-harmed, both of us cuffed to the rail awaiting further instructions.
15 minutes, half an hour passed and nothing doing: the cops were nowhere to be seen or heard, and we waited fearfully for the Black Mariah to cart us downtown to Central Booking at 1 Centre Street and our cell in the Tombs’ holding pens. Time dragged on, and finally a fat cop emerged. un-cuffing us from the rail and releasing the locks. We were each handed a slip of paper, a warning, and told to beat it. Got hot geshikt der refieh far der makeh, as they say in Yiddish: God sent the cure in advance of the plague. It was Friday night, and despite multiple calls to the Seminary, no one answered, and no one would show up to sign a criminal complaint. We were off, scot-free to go, as the curses and name calling ensued: Cat calls of “faggot hippie scum” chased us out the door down 126th street into the night, a better Oneg Shabbes (welcoming the Sabbath) there never was,and never will be.
Fast forward to January 2017: JTS’ new library long built, the destruction of hundreds of units of affordable housing accomplished at 529 West 122nd Street and its twin 540 West 123rd Street, JTS completed demolition of the “new library” and with a fig thumbed to the community and social justice, JTS accepted $77,000,000 plus the $2,000,000 cost of demolition from a private real estate developer of luxury condominiums, Savanna Partners, to build a hideous high-rise eyesore on the site with nary a single unit of affordable housing nor a dollar of community benefits. In violation of Jewish morals, the world has once gain turned. Zol Got hob rakhmones on zeyere khazerishe kepele say I (May God have mercy on their greedly little heads). Fun a khazerishn ek makht men night kayn shtraymel. English equivalent: from a sow’s ear you don’t make a silk purse….