A Walk Through the East Village on May Day, 2011

City of Strangers

Murkey windows of the Mars Bar, East Village, NY

Went to the East Village Sunday, MayDay, to see if they still have the May Day events in Tompkins Square Park. The events/protests were a big fixture in the early 90’s and though I hadn’t thought of them in years, I wanted to see if they were still around, long after the neighborhood had kicked out its radicals.

On Ave. B, the college kids bellowed from the bars. I never quite get used to seeing kids like this in the East Village. I keep thinking they must be lost, and when they realize where they are they’ll go back to their part of town. But of course the East Village IS their part of town now.

No May Day rallies in Tompkins Square Park. Not much anything in fact. Parents with babies in strollers. A few kids sitting in circles on the green playing guitars. A few kids with painted hair sitting on the benches along Crusty Row, curiously out of place amidst the leafy, sedate, almost suburban park that Tompkins Square has become.

Down Ave. A, a few relics remain. Those Indian restaurants with the outlandish lights. An old woman pushing a cart full of laundry, likely holed up in one of those brick apartment complexes on 1st Ave. Down 3rd street, the Hell’s Angels East Village headquarters, buffed up with with a fresh paint job, a half-dozen custom hogs, some protected by tarps, under the ‘No Parking for anyone but Hell’s Angels’ sign’.

And the Mars Bar.

More Murky Windows of Mars Bar, East Village, NY

I keep hearing the Mars Bar is going to close and yet every time I make it down this way, it’s still open. Inside, the music was on loud: the Bangles ‘Kids of America’, followed by ‘Forgotten Boy’ by the Stooges. A half dozen regulars sat around the bar, completely hammered. Groups of kids and tourists and outer borough people came in, settling at the bar for a few drinks, leaving. In other words, it was the same as it’s been every time I’ve been there since I can remember. I even remembered one of the regulars from the early 90’s. I think he even wore the same jacket. A remarkable sub-section of the East Village, or what’s left of it.

I talked to the bartender, asked her how much longer the bar would be open. She said no one knew, but they thought the ax would fall in the spring, maybe even the fall. Everyone who came in asked the same question I had about the bar. She told me, “A friend was in here and she couldn’t believe how many times I was asked that. Sometimes it’s every few minutes. But I’m glad people care so much . . . ”

I sat by the door. Some kind of 80’s punk rock music was playing on the jukebox, songs I would have recognized once but that have faded with time. The Mars was one of the first bars I ever went to in New York, way back in the ancient history that is late 1980’s, I remembered what it was like to look out the doorway on the East Village of that time, to peer out those murky windows. All the homeless on the pavement, the druggies coming in and out. And this music, just a few years old then. You forget, with the media saturation of punk style and fashion, how fresh this music seemed back then, how liberating hardcore was if you could get into the noise. Of course punk was a decade old at that point, and by the late 80’s my time in it was pretty much over, but you could still listen to songs like this and feel like you belonged to something, and the Village, like Camden in London or countless neighborhoods across cities in the West, was a frontier of sorts, where you could come in from out of town and find like souls in places like the Mars Bar (or Vazacs or . .. ) which was itself replicated in various forms in these like neighborhoods, on both sides of the pond.

Nostalgia.

I took a few pictures of the windows. I’ve always loved the windows in the Mars Bar. I’ve always assumed they accumulated years, even decades of graffiti, but the bartender said no, most of them were new since they kept getting smashed out and had to be replaced every couple of months.

Back in the F to the A. Those brawny New York faces of the outer boroughs, the working class that hasn’t yet been pushed out the city, who have been hit the hardest and longest by this recession.

Then, in the morning, waking up to find out they’d got Bin Laden. If I’d hung out for another hour or two, I could have been in Manhattan to see the news on TV. Crowds filled Times Square, Ground Zero . . . thus ending another New York era.

Mural in front of the Mars Bar, East Village, NY 'The East Village is Dead'

Copyright City Of Strangers 2011.

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