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ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in early July, I ran into Lenny Horowitz, art critic and moviemaker, outside the Safeway on West Broadway. "I've just come back from the Figaro" he said. "It reopened a week ago and all your friends are there".
I agreed that was good news. Since the Figaro had closed seven years before, there hadn't been anywhere like it; no place where you could sit over an espresso and rap, read, play chess, or just bullshit with your friends. The Figaro was a legend. Started by Tommy Ziegler, a block from Bob Dylan's place at MacDougal & Bleecker streets in the Sixties, it was probably the Village's single most important meeting place for the literati of its day. Everybody I knew had happy memories of it. I read the galleys for at least three of my books there and at one time or another sipped coffee with most of my friends. But an influx of fast food vendors and the general decline of Bleecker Street closed it down in 1969 and Ziegler headed for Hollywood.
When I arrived at the new version a few moments later I found it better than my fondest memories. Just like the old days: the same yellowing, lacquered copies of Le Figaro covering the walls; stained glass window panels here and there; opened windows with tables beside them and sprawling along the sidewalk outside; and a front section of about a dozen tables and a raised portion in the rear with about two dozen more, low iron railings dividing them. Only the Tiffany lamps were missing, replaced by an enormous multi-tentacled chandelier with an art nouveau octopus. Fantastic! Many familiar faces were there: John Filler, who'd years ago married Mary Travis at a Figaro party; hoaxer Joey ('the cathouse for dogs') Skaggs; Gene Maslow, last seen at Aurobino's Pondicherry ashram; Dylan's friend Lola; photographer and stud Ken Van Sickle; filmmaker Gloria Sylvestro. A dull Manhattan summer looked suddenly more interesting.
Back again the next day I noted that all the customers were in seventh heaven, spending all their time congratulating each other on their good taste in returning. Lenny revealed that he'd been coming in four times a day (it never closes) and most of the old hands (male) were eyeing the pretty waitresses like connoisseurs. A dark-haired beauty wearing what appeared to be a black slip caught my eye and I told her she looked "absolutely irresistible. She looked a little startled at first and then smiled. Her name is Zoe, an art student at Pratt.
The waitresses work hard for relatively little money, she revealed, averaging about $40 in tips per shift. The old Figaro's legendary policy of allowing customers to sit as long as they liked was still in force although the waitresses now suffered more from people who monopolize a table for an hour and then leave a quarter tip. Back home, I resolved to start keeping a diary.
Friday, July 16: The mystique has already spread from customers to staff who are now wearing spiffy Figaro T-shirts (available for $3.50 at the shop next door) and tonight I got into a conversation with a teenage beauty whose dearest wish is to wear one legitimately. Wearing a big floppy hat from under which peeped masses of Little Orphan Annie-type curls, she said it was her life's ambition to be a Figaro waitress and she planned to keep coming in as a customer until she achieved it. Figaro waitresses, undisputed stars, have a legendary reputation on this stylist stage set on which we all nightly play our parts. They have a legendary reputation as love goddesses about whom we all fantasize continually. I myself have been secretly in love with doe-eyed Robin, the only holdover from the early era, for at least ten years. On my first visit the other night she flung her arms around me and said: "Welcome home". My response was such that Lenny said that in all the years he'd known me he'd never before seen me in a public show of affection, which is sad if it's true. Since the Figaro closed Robin had been married and divorced and now lives with a musician.
Sunday, July 18: A black guy is on the steps next to the Cafe Borgia across the street. The Fig's famous operatic tapes are playing so loudly that it's impossible to hear him but he has drawn the usual big crowd that assembles for anything on this corner. Johnny Redd's $6000 chrome-plated motorcycle with its fancy layers of filigree metalwork and hi-fi speakers has drawn the biggest mob this week but the purple van, plushly fitted out like a mobile whorehouse, was a crowd stopper last night. Blacks usually make the most impressive appearances, with or without vehicles, and not the least of these is the towering giant who parks his pimpmobile beside the hydrant at 2am and strolls in with a pair of knockout white ladies wearing skintight dresses. The witching hour seems to be midnight when couples from uptown arrive by taxi, presumably after the theatre.
STOMP THE FAGS was scrawled on the men's room wall and somebody had appended to it: 'If you're such a bad-ass, shout that out loud in The Spike' (a notorious leather bar) 'on a Thursday night'. The graffiti isn't up to Sixties standards when an early scrawl, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' made an item for my Village Square column and much later the title of an Edward Albee play. The late Bob Reisner used to bring his New School class here to view the wall art and thinking that this current batch probably lacked a documenter, I made notes.
Life is a Walt Disney production and Take only the path with a heart were the first to catch my eye, and then the poignant Before I met you it was too early; now it's too late. Most of the others were only so-so: 'Disarm Rapists.... Fuck Socialism.... Arm the V Vagrants.... Dylan's gay... I was a delegate here from NC to support busing'. The only one I really liked was: Just like the old Figaro. Even the bad service. But the waittresses are still pretty.
Falling in love with Figaro waitresses is an old tradition and Lenny says that there's always been keen competition between customers and staff for their affection.
Monday, July 19: I could hardly wait to get back to my regular table by the window after a disastrous outing to Queens to see a cow art show in the local museum where overdressed suburbanites were lining up for plastic glasses of imitation milk. The only relief was in meeting Ray Johnson, an artist about whom I'd done my first Voice column in 1958. Back at the Fig who should turn up but Peter Frank who reminded me that we'd first met at a Ray Johnson gathering in Central Park. I didn't remember that, thinking that I had met him only last fall when I watched him in the lobby at the Whitney Museum acknowledging the greetings of a continual procession of lovely women with all of whom he appeared to be on intimate terms. I introduced myself at that time, observing that I'd rarely seen anybody so friendly with so many people. He was very modest about it but I determined there and then to read some of his art writings to learn what made him so renowned. Regrettably, I still haven't.
Considering how many hours I spend sitting here it's not surprising that I see so many familiar faces from my past. Often I don't know who they are but lately I have begun to pay more attention with the realization that yesterday's bit part in the drama of your life may well turn up playing a major role in some future scene. At any rate, this business of repeating cycles is getting to be a preoccupation: the other night, for the ump-teenth time, I dreamed I was back at boarding school, only this time it was peopled by all the people I know now instead of the ones I knew then. (Whatever happened to them, I wonder?). Gloria said it probably meant I had finally exorcized the dream and that I wouldn't have it again. Nevertheless, I feel I'm onto something with this 'secondary character' insight, i.e. people who played the tiniest part in your life the first time you met them. It made me wonder if when we die we pass down this endless corridor lined with all the people we've ever met, spending an infinite time with each to straighten out, correct or even repeat the relationship we had with them last time around.
The clearest indication of how much of a club the Fig is becoming is that the waitresses spend almost as much time here off duty as when they're working. Janet, the baby faced blonde in tight jeans, the apron string bisecting her buttocks, was sitting in the back when I told her I'd always thought of her as a typical surfer girl. It seems I was right.
Tuesday, July 20: I asked Zoe (the art student, most claim to be actresses) if she'd copy the graffiti from the ladies' room wall for me and she returned with the following:
As she was reading the last one to me, bearded Richie (one of the managers) seized her by the waist and carried her back into the ladies room. And locked the door. I've often noticed him fondling Jennie, another cute one I fancy, and this demonstration of droit de seigneur pissed me off. I mentioned it to Lennie, back at the table, and he laughed and we got (inevitably) into how hard it is to get laid. Lenny went into his usual bit of how simple it is to meet women and he does find it easier to talk to strangers than I do. I always get put down as some kind of sex fiend, or maybe think I will be, and fail to act. Shyness (or cowardice) I suppose, whereas Lenny's approach actually seems to work. He was the first to strike up an acquaintance with Elizabeth, a nightly regular who wears dark shades and a rhinestone love pin.
Once I began to talk to her myself, I found a self-contained, interesting woman of obviously independent means (source as yet undetermined) and a fair knowledge of archaeology. She writes poetry and loves the Middle East whose memory she cherishes by hanging around the Lebanese coffee shops further up MacDougal street. "Where's Elizabeth?" I asked and Lenny made some rude remark about her and said she hadn't been in for a couple of days. The conversation shifted to hookers and I remarked that it would be useful to have a discount punch card valid with a friendly one who clocked your card every week to the mutual satisfaction of both sides. It would not only be a money saver in the long run but would release a lot of time usually spent in the pursuit of getting laid. "Do women ever have this problem?" I asked. Apparently not. At that moment, Zoe dropped by the table and declared that Israelis "are the horniest men in the world".
Wednesday, July 21: Elizabeth came in tonight as I was scribbling some notes and I mentioned Lenny without repeating his putdown. She wrinkled her nose. "I just can't stand to sit with him for long" she said, which may have explained last night's outburst. "There are some people who tire me very easily." It seemed like a good time to bring up the matter of how to pick up strange women. I asked Elizabeth what she said to the men who invited themselves to sit at her table. "I've gotten very wary" she said, "because I've had some bad experiences. It's a pity really because after being turned off by one guy I'm apt to be very negative to the next and yet for all I know he may be just the one I really want to meet.
The fact is that is that women are scared and men are confused and I don't see a way out of it". It was pretty hard to start a relationship with somebody who doesn't give you a chance to talk, I observed petulantly. Just then Ralston Farina arrived with a friend and glibly opined that Women's Lib was declining as a force with the realization that it had been mostly bolstered by older women who sought an excuse for not having orgasms. Anyway, as we all agreed, women seemed to have given up on sex for the moment and Ralston added: "It's easy to get along with them as long as you keep the discussion up in the air and don't suggest anything that remotely resembles a landing pattern". Gloria, who'd just joined us, was furious when she heard this and called us all of bunch of male chauvinists.
Thursday, July 22: Somebody asked what the old Village had been like and I recalled that in the Fifties it had been much quieter but even then everybody that talked about how much better it was in the good old days. "These are the good old days" said Wavy Gravy who had stopped by after making appearances promoting his 'Nobody For President' campaign ("Nobody will get all the votes" he predicted). In those good old days Wavy Gravy was Hugh Romney who played the Bleecker Street cafes for a share of what customers dropped in the basket. Since then he's turned into a clown, the wise fool of historical tradition, who always has more wisdom than he's given credit for. "A clown can be as provocative as he likes' said Hugh, "Try dressing up as a clown and see what you can do. Nobody hits a clown, man. Nobody".
Ralston was monitoring the passers-by, the flotsam and jetsam of a Village evening. Maybe the good old days really had gone forever, he suggested. "Everybody is so shallow today. No one reads or listens to classical music or has any depth. Even in Soho nobody knows anything about poetry". I quoted something I had once read to the effect that the previous generation was brought up on movies, on immense images larger than life, whereas today we watched television where everything was in a little box and smaller than life and thus less impressive.
This lead into a general discussion of what had made Greenwich Village bohemian in the first place--what had brought all the artists with their beads and berets. It seemed to me that all the publicity about Paris in the Thirties had finally come back home and the Village had benefited from America's need to have a bona fide bohemia of its own. Just then everybody attention was diverted by a seven-foot man walking by and the subject shifted to basketball.
"Are the players always tall?" I asked. "Are there short basketball teams somewhere?"
Friday, July 23: Howard Smith came in tonight and we exchanged waves across the room. I first took him over to the Voice to introduce him as potential contributor and when I quit in 1966 he replaced me as columnist but when I ran into him a year or two later and observed that as he had started plugging underground papers, he might like to mention Other Scenes sometime. He had looked me in the eye and said: "I would never mention you in my column or anything you did. The way you treated Ed and Dan was disgraceful and they said they were well rid of you and your claims to have been a cofounder". I was dumb-founded. "Howard", I said, "what brought this on? I've known you for years and you never indicated you disliked me".
Saturday, July 24: Peter Frank borrowed my pen to annotate a statement he'd just noticed on the men's room wall; WHEN TRUTH HAS GONE FROM ART, IT HAS GONE FOREVER--R. Farina. Peter wrote underneath: "Oh, Ralston, stop quoting yourself". When Ralston arrived a few minutes later (Peter had left by then) he erased the addenda and said: "Well, some-body once called Peter Frank the Alfred E. Neuman of the art world". Lenny suggested that maybe "the Woody Allen of the art world" would have been more accurate but Ralston stood by his original evaluation. Of course we started arguing about what art was (again) and Ralston said: "Well, it certainly isn't theatre". I suggested that our notions of theatre had changed a lot since the Happenings of the previous decade and added that the only theatre I enjoyed these days was what was happening on the corner right in front of us.
Gloria, who didn't usually say much, asked Ralston what kind of art it was he did. "My medium" Ralston said, "is time. All of my discipline, my meditation, goes into painting the dragon--all but the eye, which I paint last. When I paint in that final eye the dragon flies away. That's what I try to explore. Only artists see the whirr of the wings, the blurred lines of the dragon in flight. The public sees the nest it made for itself". I didn't quite understand that but I liked the way he said it and it reminded me of the only artwork of his that I had ever seen. He'd instructed everybody to meet in the Fine Arts Gallery at precisely 6pm to watch his creation. On the stroke of six, Ralston had come in bearing one of those plastic gardening sprayers and shot a fine, filmy mist of water over a series of blank canvases on the wall. As the moisture hit the canvas, an obviously pre-painted Japanese hieroglyphic surfaced, disappearing again when the water dried. It was impressive and I told everyone about it.
Sunday, July 25: Back onto the subject of the war between men and women today with Ralston maintaining that it was like "Lysistrata without the war". Men, he declared, were at all times merely obeying natural impulses that couldn't be changed or controlled. And women held it against them. My own feeling, I said, was that society still suffers from the mass sexual frustration that's a holdover from the days when women were wary of fucking for fear of getting pregnant, and although the arrival of the pill invalidated that attitude to some extent, it also coincided with women's increased awareness of the way they had always been sexually exploited. I was talking about pickups and new relations--or would-be relationships--rather than men and women who already knew each other. At least seven of us were gathered around a tiny table outside the front door and it seemed like everybody who came by was known to at least one or two of us; it was like a giant party. Bob Patterson was at the next table, it being the first time I'd seen him since he wrote me a story for EVO about the guilty excitement to be derived from fucking 15-year-old girls. It was skillfully written, more like a sociological report than a confession, but to play safe I gave him an academic byline--Dr. Robert Patterson. Judging by today's climate, of course, 15-year-olds are veterans and he'd have to write about 10-year-olds to have the same impact. One of the passers-by was Maurice, the bearded veteran who has prowled Village streets for 20 years selling old magazines. I persuaded Gene to tease him a little. Gene: "Maurice, is it true that you have $200,000 secretly hidden away somewhere in a parcel locker?" Maurice: "I don't want to discuss that".
Lenny remarked that the difference between today's Figaro and the old one was that nobody sat around stoned in the old days. At this Bob got very indignant and said that lots of people used to deal out of the Figaro. And today? I asked. Bob smiled ruefully. "It would be nice to find some right now". (New York is undergoing its annual pre-harvest famine). Rona said she'd been talking to somebody here yesterday who'd recalled that most of the dealing took place in the garden, which had trees at that time. There was sawdust on the floor of the basement where they used to show WC Fields movies.
Jane remarked that she was so innocent in those days that she used to sit around, get picked up by men and not know what to do when they took her home. "I'd end up jerking them off", she said, "because I didn't know about sex and I was too scared to find out". Well, added Gloria, the Figaro used to really intimidate her. "I was new to New York and I thought all these people around me must be so sophisticated and knowledgeable. I often look at the young girls sitting around today and wonder if they feel as I did then".
Later that day: I couldn't believe we were all blabbering about 'What is Art?' again, just as we did all through the Sixties. I said: "I think it would be beneficial if all the world's masterpieces were sold to the highest bidders and replaced in museums by first-rate copies". Experts were often unable to tell the difference, I pointed out, and as the main purpose of museums is to be educational, the only effect would be to produce millions of dollars that could be used to enhance art, and possibly poor artists, in various ways. Not only that but the new owners would then take over all insurance costs and be extremely vigilant about security to protect their investment. It's a provocative argument that I've made before, always to outraged protests, and this time was no exception. Ralston and Lenny could not wait to interrupt each other by blustering about how true works of art have "presence" and "essence" and all that other bullshit. To which I retorted that it was only when you were told the value of something that you became awed by its mystique. I mentioned the time I'd met the curator of some tiny museum in the Midwest and he'd explained how the only 'intelligent' way to utilize his small budget was to specialize, in his case on the Dutch painters of the late 18th century or some similarly limited category. The result was that he had a valuable collection that covered about .0001 per cent of art history and the local community that patronized his museum learned virtually nothing about art in general.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Reader,
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner