By E.N.J. Carter
Sundays on the corner of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue were a spectacle most churchgoers tried to ignore in the early 1970s. The female prisoners, arrested the night before, would shout down from barred windows to their pimps, who were dressed in wide-brimmed hats and blazing bell-bottoms. They, in turn, shouted back encouragement that soon the bail bondsman would get them out. One expected to hear the soundtrack from the movie Shaft. This, however, was The Village and one did not judge the women for entering prostitution as a way of life. On other days, some female prisoners would hurl messages at the public—particularly the ribald ‘MF’ word. These brief showers of hateful words—words full of pain—would stop just as quickly as they came.
The New York Women’s House of Detention stood next to the Jefferson Market Library as an embarrassing annex. The library itself was once a courthouse with a sterling reputation.
Curse words, of course, don’t grow, and the New York Women’s House of Detention was replaced by a garden. (One wonders: If the MF word were a plant, how would it look?) It reflects a new Village prone to living off the past as few neighborhoods in the world can. There is little desperation in today’s Village, which was once ubiquitous: the folk singer performing in Macdougal Street coffeehouses for tips, the runaways washing dishes in kitchens, the gays forced to drink in mob bars, the junkies in St. Vincent’s Emergency Room trying to nab a prescription to get high, the male prostitutes who worked under the formerly elevated West Side Highway, always fearful that the truck drivers they serviced would beat them up after sex.
This was not the Village of today, where the privileged young pay $4,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. But one wonders if the Village they want is the one that rained down curse words and had lots of desperate, but creative, people running around. To take it further, one wonders if a poet could create a great poem in a million-dollar condo. Could a writer become famous by eating in expensive Village restaurants every night? Do they need a women’s prison to walk by every day to experience humanity at a gut level?
Is Hemingway being fair when he says that the first six years of a life can determine whether you will be a good writer or not? Must your mother be behind bars shouting obscenities at the public to make you the writer you want to be?
Does it make sense to pay an exorbitant rent for the privilege of being within walking distance of the venue where a great poet, writer, or musician suffered in less-than-ideal conditions—where Dylan Thomas threw up outside of the White Horse Tavern, or where Bob Dylan slept in a seedy walkup?
The Jefferson Market Garden of today is cosmetic to some degree. Plants replace the poor lives of women who were prisoners even after they left the detention facility.
Is it moral to miss those voices that rained down such pain? One would think so. Yet, smartphone users who walk by and ignore us, wrapped up in their Snapchat worlds, hurl the MF word at us to some degree. They are saying that we don’t matter. We’re not important enough to warrant a glance, negating our existence unlike the ugly building that once housed desperate women at 10 Greenwich Avenue.
E.N.J. Carter is a former advertising copywriter who created the ‘Be All You Can Be’ theme line for the U.S. Army. Doo-Wop Dreams, his latest thriller, is available on Amazon.