This is Not My First Pandemic

In my book, Community, the word “AIDS’ appears 54 times. Our midtown New York City neighborhood was hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. In November 1985 the local hospital, St. Clare’s, opened the first state-designated AIDS unit. Many of the patients were uninsured. People were unprepared for this disease, which was found in other countries as well. A true pandemic, HIV/AIDS continues to infect millions around the world.

In the 1980s it killed people I knew, neighbors and co-workers, in the city and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For several years, we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We didn’t know what the stages were. People were afraid to be near a person with AIDS, to shake their hands, or breathe the same air. Then it seemed only certain people got AIDS: gay men, drug addicts, and sex workers. As with COVID-19, many people felt they were not at risk. They were wrong. It killed people in all walks of life, all ages, rich and poor, black and brown and white. One was a postal worker in my building, another an innovative developer, and another the head of a major homeless services organization.

Initially, the gay community was hit hard. My personal experience with AIDS began with a young man who lived in the apartment next door, whose mother came up from South Carolina to be with him in his last weeks. I saw the sores on his legs, his wasted body. A friend had a neighbor going through the same thing, another young guy with his life before him; his parents came to be with him, too. Another young man, Frank Clemmons, had started out in community activism at the same time I did. When Frank told me he had AIDS, it was just before going into a community meeting. We were in the Art Deco main hall of the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, green and gold motif, decorated elevators around the corner at the far end.

Several years later, I dreamed I was in the elevator at the McGraw-Hill building. Muted light. Green, gold. Quiet. The elevator operator was a cab driver-philosopher. Going up was against the gravity of my mind, coming down we slipped 1-2-3 floors. Then 6 and 7, then 17. Fast. I stood watching the lights, the floor numbers flashing by. Wondered if I should care, say anything. Time slipped away.

I said, isn’t there anything you can do?

I saw a notice in a newsletter that Frank Clemmons had died in February, 1996.

Frank had been the Chelsea Reform Club’s “district leader from 1989-1991. Frank served on Community Board 4, Area Policy Board 4, and as a board member of NYS Gay & Lesbian Lobby—the predecessor of the Empire State Agenda. He was also a strong supporter and fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Chorus and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.” He was also active in the 30th Street Block Association, Chelsea Waterside Park Association, and the Midtown South Precinct Community Council.

“Frank’s gentle manner and devotion to helping others will long be remembered by those he touched,” the notice said. “He was forty years old and died after a long illness of complications, due to AIDS.”

This is not my first pandemic. It amazes me that so many people have a casual attitude towards it. Every life lost is precious. And that should not be tolerated.

Poets of Our Time

And now for another excerpt from my book, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, restored window

St. Clement’s. Beauty under the grime. Muted mosaics flaring in sunlight. Chanting poets.

Rich wanted to ask Allen Ginsberg to read a section of The Odyssey at an anti-nuclear event he was planning for a Sunday at St. Clement’s on August 6th, “Hiroshima day.”

He asked me to go with him to Allen Ginsberg’s reading at a nuclear disarmament rally. He read most probably from “Plutonian Ode.”

Poets we knew and became connected to moved forward, a gentle tide, rocked by the new thing, our ability to create oblivion, and to answer with our voices evoking the voices of consciousness to carol our spirits inside the death-rendering, until there we were, the Poets of Our Time right up in front of the crowd, serious, dolorous, Kerouac cool, smiling antennas up and on the tips of our toes. Ginsberg threw himself into the poetry, sparked our responses: nodding heads, nodding bodies. Handclaps, psalming our way beyond. We were in love.

I was in love. With Allen Ginsberg!

In the excitement Richard and I were swept away. Rich had no chance to ask Ginsberg to read at the St. Clement’s anti-nuclear event. We rode over the East River to a party at Maurice Kenny’s Brooklyn apartment, and after that, unwilling to give up the day, although it was midnight, we walked to the Esplanade to feel and hear the breath-song of New York harbor.

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark

NEW! THE SECOND VOLUME OF NEW YORK CITY MEMOIRS: INTO THE FIRE

I’ve just published this book about my experiences running the poetry program at a midtown Manhattan church. This takes place before the time period in Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. This book is about the transition from the arts to community work.

Summary

A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the theater. Soon she is helping run the church’s poetry program. The New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The poetry scene, occurring alongside Punk Rock and the waning days of experimental dance and theater, is part of the last grassroots artistic era in the United States.

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. This story is set in a neighborhood that reflects the passion of the times. By 1980, both the arts scene and New York neighborhoods are on the verge of change. The author’s life in the arts weaves in and out of the neighborhood’s narratives. She must make a choice between two possible lives.

St. Clement’s Church has a storied history in the arts, beginning with the American Place Theater in the 1960s to the present day. Cameo appearances in this memoir are made by Robert Altman, Amiri Baraka, Daniel Berrigan, Karen Black, Raymond Carver, Cher, Abbie Hoffman, Spalding Gray, Al Pacino, and Paul Simon. Erick Hawkins, June Anderson, and Daniel Nagrin dance through.

Poets and writers include Carol Bergé, Ted Berrigan, Enid Dame, Cornelius Eady, Allen Ginsberg, Daniella Gioseffi, Barbara Holland, Bob Holman, Richard Howard, Maurice Kenny, Tuli Kupferberg, Eve Merriam, Robin Morgan, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Alice Notley, William Packard, Robert Peters, Rochelle Ratner, Grace Shulman, and Kurt Vonnegut. Mentioned or discussed: Joseph Bruchac, Gregory Corso, Emily Dickinson, David Ignatow, Joy Harjo, Rashid Hussein, Kim Chi Ha, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Anais Nin, Ron Padgett, Pedro Pietro, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton, among others. Along the way, I recommend poems that can be found online.

Community: Reblog

Thanks to Chris Graham at the Story Reading Ape for publicizing the #newrelease of my latest book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. The Story Reading Ape is well-known to writers for writing tips and profiles of authors. Chris has also designed book covers. A very versatile ape!

Here is his page for Community

And I’ll add in a couple of photos of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood

Mathews-Palmer Playground West 45th – 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues
Me at the start of the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival circa 1997 (blue shirt, black pants)

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen

COMPREHENSIVE, ARTICULATE, HONEST AND ENGAGING – DAVID SELZER

Community is a memoir of community work and city politics in Manhattan during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s – as a neighborhood fights the effects of “development fever” and the devastating flood of illegal drugs. It is a sometimes brutal but also inspiring account of people organizing peacefully to save and improve their community.

The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the west side of midtown Manhattan and its people are the great presence in this book. This “small town in midtown” is a land of willing exiles who forge their own destinies as members of a community.

As one of my Beta readers, Satyam Balakrishnan, said, Community is “an entire account of years of activism in one neighborhood, and it chronicles the tussles between estate developers and long-time residents, the wrangling between social groups, and the struggle to forge a common platform and agenda.” He went on to say “the narrative is pacy,” and “there are some remarkable characters – the one that breaks into a hop/dance and locks the park gates. A memoir is a recalling of events as witnessed and experienced and a memoir with a context (activism and social work in a metro city) is something more.” 

The issues are just as relevant today: what makes effective community action, how far will you go to accomplish your ends, what are the forms of politics you can choose to practice, how does democracy work?

Community is available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Pre-Order Available Now for “Community”

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen, by Mary Clark

The ebook version of my memoir of community work and city politics in Manhattan during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s – when Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani were coming into power – is now available for pre-order on Amazon. This 150,000 word book is a detailed account of a New York City neighborhood’s fight against the effects of the Times Square Redevelopment and Worldwide Plaza, as well as the devastating flood of drugs. This is a sometimes brutal story, but more often an inspiring account of people organizing non-violently to save and improve their community.

Community, A Memoir

Cover of the memoir, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell's Kitchen (New York City), by Mary Clark, with photograph of Ninth Avenue

My memoir , Community, will be available soon.

As an arts coordinator at a midtown church in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, I began a fifteen-year journey through New York City politics. From the volatile streets to the halls of power, I experienced the triumphs and defeats of the Hell’s Kitchen community as it fought “development fever.” My actions fed into the successes and failures of my community work, as this memoir describes in a nod to Rousseau’s The Confessions.

The AIDS epidemic was at its height. Homeless families were placed in midtown hotels, which resembled refugee camps. Crime associated with the illegal drug trade threatened one of the oldest communities in the city. Meanwhile, ambitious politicians vied for dominance behind the scenes. I had a grassroots view of the fall of Ed Koch, a working relationship with David Dinkins, conflicts with Ruth Messinger, and the rise of Rudolph Giuliani.

Three years into my years as a community activist, I met James R. McManus, Democratic district leader and head of the last Tammany Hall club in New York City. In a twist of irony, this “radical liberal” found with the McManus Club the opportunity to have the most productive time of my life.

There is a fire in Hell’s Kitchen, and you are invited to sit by its light and hear in its flames the prayer, the song, a cautionary tale, and an echo of love and rage.

Community takes place in the 1980s and 1990s in New York City, with its “war on drugs” and mega-developers. The story begins with Mayor Ed Koch’s last term and goes up to Rudy Giuliani’s second term, with cameo appearances by Bella Abzug, Jerry Nadler, and Donald Trump.

A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker – Broadway 1975

“Equus” was on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, starring Peter Firth and Anthony Hopkins, Frances Sternhagen and Marian Seldes

Broadway 1974

March 29 (circa the 29th)

Anthony Hopkins bowed with the others, one foot on end, and turned and bowed to the stage-seat audience. He seemed embarrassed or mad as he went off-stage, from the angle of his head with his hair flopping over his forehead. After the applause ended, I went in the stage entrance. There was another young woman there waiting for another of the actors and a security guard wearing a Scottish-clan type hat. He asked who we were waiting for. After a while, the woman sat down on the bench and I leaned against the wall with one shoulder against the radiator. The man said that you could always tell a Shubert theater because they turned the heat off before noon even on the coldest days.

Hopkins came downstairs alone, pulling on his coat, took the step from the landing heavily and too fast.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

He turned by the door to sign an autograph for a man who had come in, and faced me. He signed his name silently; he looked pale, almost grey, and his clothes were disheveled, but not good-naturedly and charmingly as usual. He had on tan slacks, a yellow shirt and a brown knit tie that was spread suggestively over his shirt, and a coat and winter coat. The public display of unhappiness was mesmerizing and I stared at him unabashedly, which annoyed him more.

He did not want to talk and ran off, and I followed him past the Booth Theatre and through Shubert Alley, he on one side near the theaters, cutting through a crowd outside the Shubert Theatre, and I on the other side.

On Monday, I read the Tony Awards nominations. He was not nominated for best actor for his role in “Equus.” I think he knew last Saturday. [He should have been nominated.]

May 31

I waited outside the theater. I was wearing my black velvet jacket and blue bells. I met him just inside the stage entrance. He came up to me as I stood by the door so fast that I was startled, but there was no place to step back. His eyes were light grey-blue, so was his voice, but forceful, when he said hello. He wore a blue denim jean suit and a pink shirt. There was a little bit of shaving cream or cold cream at one corner of his mouth and by the opposite ear.

I followed him outside. A woman had photos of herself taken standing with him and some young woman joked that they would meet him at Sardi’s. He came toward me and put out his arm to sweep me along with him as he went down the street.

“I have nothing to say to you today. I’m just hanging around.”

He smiled at me, indicating that it was all right. Two other people, a young man and woman started walking and talking with him and by the Booth Theatre, he stopped momentarily to talk to someone else and we three went ahead slowly.

Rejoining us, I walked beside him. They asked about a letter and he said he wasn’t sure, then reached into his coat pocket, “Oh, I’ve been carrying this around all day.”

The young couple left us. He asked me to have a drink with him.

I said no. “I can’t drink.”

He said that he was going to have a Coke.

“Oh? Can I have a Coke too?”

“Yes. I’m meeting some people. I don’t know what they’re up to.”

“I’ll just have one drink and leave,” I said, thinking he was meeting business people.

“No –”

At the curb of 44th Street, I said, “Maybe they won’t let me in.” I looked down at my blue bells, pull-over shirt and sneakers. “I got my sneakers on.”

“Now you’re just being paranoid.” He stood, looking over and down at me, putting his weight on his right foot.

Outside Sardi’s he mentioned the girls again. I still didn’t know who he was talking about, and then he said he didn’t know if they were going to show up but they’d said they were meeting him at Sardi’s. I suddenly realized who he meant.

“Oh, do you think they’ll show up,” I asked, as we walked into them. I didn’t know we were already in front of Sardi’s door. He rushed forward and gathered them in and we went inside.

He told Sardi he was going upstairs to have a drink.

“Just one?” said Sardi.

He turned as he started up the stairs and put up one finger. The five of us followed, with me last in line.

“Oh, I see,” said Sardi (or whoever he was).

I glanced back to see everyone in the restaurant looking up at us. Upstairs we went past the bar and he looked for places in a small area on the other side, but there weren’t enough. After hesitating, he went into the dining area and we sat at a table in the back.

I sat next to him. They ordered drinks, he ordered a Tab and I a Coke. When the drinks came, I stared at mine. He poured it for me. One of the women, sitting on his left, was talking about “Equus” and psychology. I couldn’t hear him well, but at one point, he said, “Oh, but he does help the boy.”

They discussed Nazi concentration camps and “QBVII.” He said he’d told his agent he didn’t want to do “QBVII” – Dr. Kelno, his part, was hateful. They had tried to make him a more sympathetic character.

They mentioned “War and Peace” and their favorite scenes. One woman told us how many times she saw it. But the book is unreadable, she said.

“I’ve read it five times,” he said.

He had another Tab and asked what I wanted. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

He said that he wanted to stop smoking, but that one could always find an excuse for everything. He lit up a cigarette after just finishing one and everyone commented.

“I have an excuse,” he said.

I asked one of the women if she was going to finish her drink and she said no, so I took it. “If he’s not going to have any control,” I said, “then neither will I.” Later, when we left, my legs shook and I had to hold onto the bannister.

Then he talked about “absolute truth,” a subject which clearly defeated us all.

I heard two of the people giggling self-consciously. I realized we would have to leave soon.

When he got up, he kissed several of them rather abruptly. I hung by my chair, having some trouble standing up. The woman next to me knocked her chair over and I helped pick it up. Just before they got up, they thanked him, said they hoped they hadn’t imposed on him. He said it was nice to have an audience. The most talkative woman said his talking to them was a “mitzvah” – a nice thing, a good deed.

June 18

I stood by the Tonight 8 P.M. sign just inside the door. Most of the people were gone when he came down.

“Just a minute. I have to make a phone call. I have to confirm an appointment.”

With one foot on the step where I’d been sitting, he talked to someone. “Hello, this is Tony Hopkins.”

I stopped listening to imitate him, putting my opposite foot on the same step. I felt like a mirror reflection.

One of the horses asked him something about the phone [or the phone call?] and Hopkins boxed at his shoulder.

I followed him outside. While he signed autographs, I turned in circles, and waited in front of the lobby. A few minutes later, he came by with a middle-aged woman who was wearing an overcoat in the 86 degree heat. I thought he would put out his arm to bring me in, but his gesture was minimal. I walked along, just a little behind him, wondering what to do. He glanced at me while he talked to the woman.

She thought the show last Thursday night was “uneven,” that it started out rough and never came together. What did he think?

Yes, yes, you’re right, he said. I remember it seemed to be out of rhythm. It was “jarred.” I realized that a few minutes into the play and “it’s my responsibility to establish the rhythm” of the play. I think we got it together by the end.

She went on when he stopped, “It started off slow” and didn’t seem to get going or come together.

“Oh?” he responded. “Did you think so? I didn’t think so.” Thursday, he asked himself, last Thursday? Oh, I know what it was. I had a blood test that day and didn’t feel well.

“It was much better today,” she said.

“Thank you.”

He dusted some talcum powder off one of his pants’ legs. “It wasn’t as bad as that woman said,” he muttered when he straightened up again.

Good night, New York!

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker

I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog. 

Broadway 1974

Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake

Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?

Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.

So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.