When I first moved to Manhattan on April Fool’s Day 1980, the East Village was a cooler and creepier place than it is today. It’s still cool and creepy here and there. Some of the blocks don’t look that much different than they did back then. But from Avenue A eastward to Avenue D, well, that was a whole different world for us white folk, mostly artists, musicians, junkies and club kids, looking for cheap rent, cheap dope, cheap drinks and fun bars to mix all of the above with loud music.
I first lived on St. Mark’s between 2nd and 1st in a railroad apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen. I was a junkie then, a “speedballer” actually, which meant I shot dope and coke together, which was good for staying up all night while still maintaining my narcotic composure. I shared the apartment with three other junkies. We’d sleep all day, then cop some dope and coke in the abandoned buildings of Alphabet City, stay up and go to clubs all night, then out for breakfast at Kiev after watching an hour of Mary Tyler Moore reruns. Such was life.
I moved into a boarded-up storefront on 3rd street between A and B shortly thereafter. A two-bedroom apartment for $375 a month. All the streets south of 6th between A and B were pretty scary then. Between B and C they were really scary. Between C and D? Well, you didn’t want to go there at night. At all.
Most of the buildings between B and D were condemned and abandoned. Demolished yards of rubble separated the dead shells of buildings. Some of the buildings were filled with squatters seeking no-rent habitation. Some had been taken over by drug dealers. Those were the ones I visited nightly.
Here’s how it worked: you walked up three or four flights of stairs lit only by votive candles on each landing – a Halloween horror house with other junkies, even more desperate than myself, lurking in the shadows. There was a closed apartment door at the top with a knocked out peephole. You never went inside the door. You said, “One dope, one coke,” (or whatever your order was) and stuck twenty dollars through the hole. Then some anonymous fingers stuck two packages back out the hole, the Mexican brown heroin wrapped in small glassine envelopes with rubber stamp marks on them that identified the dealer’s brand. Yes, they actually had brand names like Black Death and other sinister titles. The coke was generic, wrapped in tin foil.
It was a terrifying experience, at least for me, made even more terrifying by the fact that I was doomed to go back and repeat the same process night after night after night. In The Book of Paul, much of the action takes place in one of these no-longer-abandoned buildings. The top floor is occupied by someone far more sinister and dangerous than the most sociopathic drug dealer. It is the home of Paul and the horrors it contains are far more gruesome and terrifying than anything I ever experienced in similar ruins – though I have a few good yarns to spin about that – someday.
I don’t live like that anymore. I live in a nice loft in a nice neighborhood with my exceptional wife and two wonderful children. I’m a family man, not a self-seeking junkie. On August 16th I will celebrate 25 years clean and sober (God willing, as they say in “the rooms”). I haven’t been in an abandoned building between Avenue C and D, in decades. There hasn’t even been an abandoned building in Alphabet City in decades. I no longer have any urgent errands calling me inside, leading me up those candlelit staircases.
Yes, things are much different for me today. I’m not the same person I was when this story was set. But if you choose to visit a certain building between Avenue C and Avenue D with me, you’ll get a taste of the horror I felt, and travel on a journey that will take you to some very dark and unexpected places.