I have published a series of short memoir pieces over the past 20 years. They convey brief flashes of times past, from 1978 to 1991 when I lived on the top floor of a walk-up on the corner of Bleecker St and the Bowery in New York City. My years there coincided with raising a son, who was 2 years old when we first moved to that apartment and 15 years old when we left.
In a sense, it's where we both grew up.
My first piece in this series, published in the Fall 2001 issue of Brevity, is still online.
On the Bowery
When my son and I moved to the Bowery in the late 1970s, we took our place alongside the slow-marching parade of men and women who moved through those streets like ghosts. Some were devoid of identity and shape and earthbound spirit; others were vivid and sublime.
A black man, a vagabond who trolled the streets with a pirated shopping cart, made the Bowery his home for several years. Like me, this man also had a son; or as he preferred to structure the tale, he had been a father….
In addition to his cart and its load of bundles of blankets, clothing, and foodstuffs that he pushed slowly around the neighborhood, the grizzly-haired man had a pet—very unusual for a person of the streets. His rabbit, fat and healthy, had a traveling home, too; a separate box-like contraption on wheels was roped to an axle of the hobo’s cart. This two-fold rolling homestead deserved more than a sidelong glance from the passerby. The cart had expanded beyond its intended use, becoming a portable story machine decked out in collaged mosaics, tattered flags, and plywood panels of reading material. Hand-lettered placards in magic-marker colors, laminated articles from magazines and newspapers, and faded photographs highlighted the cart. The man, well along in years, gray in both hair and rivulets of beard, had once been stylish and handsome, the head of a family of dancing, smiling boys.
The resemblance between this threadbare Bowery figure and the younger man pictured with the children was a matter of faith; the photographs were worn and creased. The story the man told had traveled many miles, through many retellings, embellished by both audience and orator, until its many twists and turns had taken on a momentum of their own. But the heart of the tale was this: the gentle rabbit caretaker was Michael Jackson’s father. A terrible and fractious family quarrel had occurred; money was bitterly disputed; and the relationship had been severed. All that was left was the story—and the storyteller.
My son and I ran into Michael Jackson’s father quite often. Benjamin was about four or five years old then, at an age when all that he encountered in our daily lives held magical weight. We’d stop to chat and admire the well-fed bunny. Some days, on a fine afternoon, the man would open the hutch door, and the rabbit would hop out to the sidewalk, and Benjamin would pat him and feed him bits of carrot or cabbage. There were also days—and this is a painful memory, now that I am too aware of the pace of time—that I’d be in a rush, and I’d distract my boy, and veer left down Mulberry Street in order to avoid the old man and his rabbit.
Michael Jackson’s father hasn’t been seen on the streets in a very long time. People who live there now wouldn’t recognize his shopping cart, or stop to feed his rabbit, or puzzle out the blurred sentences on the brown-edged pages of his saga. The Bowery that had room for people like Michael Jackson’s father is long gone. The thin men who lived in its shadowy doorways, nodded out on its stone stoops, and wintered in bare-bulb rooms, packing crates, and cardboard bunkers have drifted away. They have been blown aloft, sown like dried seedpods, taking root in some other neighborhood, and in the sidewalk crevices of its dead-end streets.