By Bennett Kremen
In the mid 1950s, when just seventeen, I took a midnight bus from Chicago through the cornfields of Indiana and the mountains of Pennsylvania into the sudden, wondrous shock of Manhattan. But even more wondrous was discovering, that very night, a strange, surreal yet extraordinarily real experiment with life itself, pulsating through the bohemia of Greenwich Village during that fabled era. Since then, I’ve traveled much of the world seeing startling, fabulous things, yet nothing quite like that.
On that first night, yes, I wandered into The Open Door, an after-hours jazz club once shaking and grooving on Bleecker Street, it’s worn wooden floor covered in sawdust and crowded with hipsters in sandals and barefoot Ivy League girls playing summer bohemians and swaying, entranced, to the wailings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who’d come downtown after their money gigs on 52nd Street to play their hearts out, only for the love of it, until the sun began shining. That was just the beginning.
Within a week I found The Cedar Tavern, on University Place, with its dull walls and plain bar jammed with working guys and artists in tee shirts while nearby sat Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others of a whole school of new art never seen before (all of ‘em downing 15-cent draft beers). Then later that night, in the Cafe Figaro on McDougal Street, I met Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and other madmen of every kind. But it didn’t end there, uh-uh. One Sunday some time on, I was out sitting by the fountain in Washington Square listening to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Dave Van Ronk, all singing passionately up to the heavens. Yet even more dramatic were the social, cultural, and political movements I witnessed—springing up year after year in the Village, then rushing across the world: Abstract Expressionism, the rebellion of the ‘60s, Stonewall and gay rights, and so many, many more. It was indeed surreal.
But I also saw something else in the Village most people never see. I saw this because I was a school drop-out, a severe dyslexic, on the old West Side of Chicago (Al Capone’s neighborhood) and started hanging around Dominic’s pool hall because it didn’t matter to the rough boys loitering there whether I could read or not. They were what’s called a Borgata—teenage mob guys. So yeah, I spotted them at once. Many of the Village bars and restaurants catering to the bohemians were Mafia-run. Stonewall was one of them. And sure enough, not long afterwards I witnessed something else truly wild and ironic in a popular, jumping, (now gone) bar on MacDougal Street. Three burly gay-bashers came swaggering in and harassed some of the customers and, in a flash, two grim men with baseball bats came from behind the bar and within minutes those hapless fools were being rushed, covered in blood, to St. Vincent’s emergency room. So unbeknownst to most Villagers, their cherished freedom to be different in peace was being safeguarded silently (most of the time) by the most violent of men. Yes, for business reasons, certainly. Yet surely it saved lives.
My novel, The Performance, tells a torrid story about this eerie relationship between an artist and the mob. Anyaskaya d’Borovik, a dancer and choreographer with a renowned dance troop in the Village, finds herself passionately in love with “Sonny Boy” Aiello, a dangerous yet courageous man. Though she tries to resist, it doesn’t work. And in every taut word of this tale, vivid images of the Village stand out and the deepest instincts of the artist and the Mafia are explored.
The Performance is available at Amazon under the author’s name.