Love letters to the old, weird New York and the old, weird cultural interests it sustained, by a grand centrifugal chronicler.
Take a piece that Village habitué Sante (The Factory of Facts, 1998, etc.) wrote for the New Yorker, a “Talk of the Town” feature about going out to grab a midnight snack in 1988 and running into a mini riot centered on Tompkins Square Park and its “latter-day Hooverville.” Sante disavows the published version for its introduced constructions (“well nigh,” “I decided to investigate”) and allows that Reaganville is more to the point, but it’s still a brisk report on a New York that has been truncheoned—no, fined—out of existence. Fined? Yes, writes Sante, for the gritty, noisy, beer-on-the-stoop New York of old was quashed during the Giuliani years, when the mayor ordered that tickets be written for every imaginable misdemeanor, including that byword for citizens’ rights, jaywalking. “New York’s transformation,” Sante avers, hinged on “the pedantic obsessiveness with which laws were combed to find a basis for extirpating all manifestations of street life, and the harshly punitive ways in which those sweeps were carried out.” Good-bye Tompkins Square squats, good-bye boarded-up buildings on Canal Street; the new New York wasn’t even tolerant of smoking, a habit, vice or way of being—take your pick—about which Sante writes a long but user-friendly semiotic analysis in which, among other things, he defends the old European custom of holding a ciggie between thumb and forefinger. (You can smoke more that way.) Alas—or hurrah, take your pick—Sante no longer smokes, and neither does the city. Other pieces touch deftly on matters of musical and cultural archaeology, from the origins of the blues to Allen Ginsberg’s turning up at Sante’s door to demand that the music be turned down.
Whatever the topic and mood, these essays are a pleasure—and any work that name-checks the Nightcrawlers’ proto-punk classic “The Little Black Egg” deserves the broadest possible readership.