Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guest Post: Pieces of Lost New York

Today we welcome author Greg Olear whose debut novel, Totally Killer, I reviewed yesterday. This was fun for me to read, since I lived in the East Village during college, the area in which Totally Killer is set. Believe me when I say that no city moves real estate and business quite as fast as New York. During my nine-month stint at a dorm on East 7th St, the restaurant on the corner of 7th and 2nd had no fewer than three name and cuisine changes. Some storefronts are occupied by the same business for decades, some for mere days. Thanks, Greg, for a look at an East Village I have never seen.

New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.

Harper’s Monthly, 1856

My novel, Totally Killer, is set in New York in 1991. Often in the book, I have the characters go to places that no longer exist. I lived in New York for the first time in 1993, moving there for a ten-year stretch two years later.

When I return these days, a different city—a new New York—greets me. Here are some of my favorite places (and things) that are no longer:

Dojo on St. Mark’s Place

Dirt-cheap Japanese place on the block of that vaunted street between Second and Third Avenues. How cheap was it? So cheap you could buy a tuna salad wrap (one part tuna, eighteen parts mayonnaise) for less than two bucks. So cheap you could gorge on a salmon dinner for less than ten. So cheap the bathrooms were kept under lock and key, with said key shackled to a sawed-off plunger handle. So cheap the cheapest Happy Hour specials in town could not entice you to linger by the bar.

The Dojo on Wavery is still there, I think, but that one is more sanitized. Totally different vibe. The St. Mark’s Dojo was pure East Village. Todd and Taylor go there in Totally Killer, and she sees a mouse scurrying into the kitchen. One of the few moments in the book based on actual events.


Dearly departed nightclub on West 14th Street, housed in what used to be an electronics store. Presided over by “Little Nell” Campbell, best known for her supporting role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Was the spot to be for most of its early life. Fell out of style for awhile, then was reinvented as a hip hop heaven. Tupac Shakur once enjoyed a bee-jay on the downstairs dance floor.

It was during the hip hop phase that I used to go to the club, only because a friend of ours worked there so we could get in and drink for free. A loud nightclub where gorgeous gals cavorted with black luminaries like Prince and Charles Barkley was maybe not the best setting for a short, waddling white dork to pick up women. As I told my friend at the time, when explaining why I didn’t want to go to a party there one night: “It’s not a place where I can shine.”


They all worked, once upon a time. And if you were lost, or couldn’t find the place you were supposed to meet your friends, what you’d do is, you’d stride right up to a payphone like you were Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, pick up the receiver, dial 411 (free of charge), and ask for an address. This way, you projected a James Bond air even when you felt more like George W. Bush reading My Pet Goat.

Holiday Cocktail Lounge

With the Virgin Megastore, one of the city’s most egregious misnomers. The dive bar to end all dive bars. Owned and operated by Stefan, once a soccer star in his native Ukraine, whose mood swings were legend. He could give you beers on the house or snap your head off, depending on the time of day. But mostly he was charming, in a dirty-old-man sort of way.

Spent one memorable New Year’s Eve here. At 5pm, a guy in one booth was passed out, alseep in his own drool. By the time he came to and found his cowboy hat and his wife, it was after ten, and we were all three sheets to the wind. He wound up buying delivery pizza for the house. At midnight, his not-in-any-way-pulchritudinous wife, who had materialized, kissed me on the lips and slipped me tongue. He didn’t give a shit. On the way out, Stefan muttered something under his breath in his native language. My friend Roman, who happened coincidentally to speak fluent Ukrainian, burst out laughing. “It’s an old slang word,” he explained (the rough English equivalent rhymes with runt and will not be printed in this space).

The Speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

Right at the corner of Waverly, in the apartment above the Indian restaurant. There was no password or anything; you just rang the buzzer and went on up. The apartment was decorated in a sort of Deco style, and the drinks were a dollar or two more than what you paid in a legal bar. But there’s nothing that impresses your friends from out of town more than a speakeasy. Its run didn’t last long, unfortunately, which isn’t surprising when you consider that I was turned on to the place from a colleague who worked with me at Kaplan. What the geeks are on to your hipster hideaway, the end is near.


In the basement level of a townhouse on West 9th Street, half a block from the PATH entrance. It’s a Mexican place now, I think. The bar was up front, and it was quiet, with clientele that skewed older (which was appealing to me at age twenty-five, when I was on the prowl for what are now called cougars…a prowl that was never, alas, successful). The bartender was of the Old School variety. He was in his sixties, he read Raymond Chandler, he told funny stories. Jack Nicholson, he said, came to the bar once or twice, and told him this story:

When Nicholson was doing research for his role as a mobster in Prizzi’s Honor, he hung out with the real McCoys, one of them a wiseguy we’ll call Frankie. Frankie brought Jack to some dump out in Jersey, where, in a back room, a group of grizzled old Italian men were playing cards at a table. Frankie walked in with his celebrity guest in tow. No one even looked up. “Hey,” said Frankie. “You see who I got with me?” The leader of the bunch looked over, eyed Jack, then looked at Frankie and said, in a Paulie Walnuts voice, “Unless he’s a horse, we don’t know him.”

Visit Greg's website at www.gregolear.com.
You can also visit the official Totally Killer site at www.totallykiller.com.

Thank you, Greg!

1 comment:

Salvatore said...

Ah, I feel like I would too lament the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. It sounds amazing, and amusing. And quite the ridiculous name attached. Brilliant stuff!