Ed. note: Popula asked Ken Layne to contribute a short diary to our Me Today department. “I over-typed,” he reported back.
IT’S A WORK day, after a couple of very late nights. I am about to turn 57 years old but I still love the morning triumph of a dawn subway, in moderation. All I’ve learned from Christ and the Buddha is to appreciate this one lifetime, this Kingdom of Heaven right here, within this wounded Earthly Paradise. If more lifetimes await, that’s OK too.
I’m staying with my journalist friend Nancy Rommelmann in a fourth-floor walkup on the Chinatown/Lower East Side boundary. A neighborhood now known, for reasons only the New York Times pretends to understand, as “Dimes Square.” It’s the new neighborhood, I’ve heard. Streets full of people, bars open late like before the pandemic, plenty of action. Such is the promise.
I see some well-dressed younger people at a few bars. They’re all looking at their phones, like everybody else, but on the sidewalks a few are conspicuously smoking cigarettes. There’s a light misty rain, beautiful to my desert-baked eyes, so everybody’s mostly back at their apartments, watching TV over the Internet.
This is a working holiday. Tonight I’ve got a show at the old Village Gate. Hallowed ground, to me. I’d hoped to have a jazz pianist join this performance/reading/podcast. There were many possibilities, right up until the day before, but nothing worked out. Which is probably best. The paying audience expects me to do what I do on the radio show—which is tell stories and deliver some philosophical radio preaching over an ambient track composed by my friend RedBlueBlackSilver back in Joshua Tree.
I drink Nancy’s coffee and look down on Canal Street, down at the Chinese laundromats and jitney bus depots, down at the maniac who yells in great bursts of incoherent anger until he tires out and rests for an hour or so. There’s a fire station nearby and the terrible sirens periodically blare, to remind me it’s a big city full of emergencies, all the time.
I’m carving tonight’s script down to the right length, picking a good local tale to integrate the Mojave Desert folklore with the spirit of the current place. I like this dramatic story about John Lennon seeing a big UFO from his patio at the Dakota in 1974. Lennon’s birthday is coming up on the weekend, too, so that’s doubly appropriate. The UFO story is not hearsay: Lennon wrote it up for a November ’74 issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He interviewed himself, with the questions attributed to a certain Dr. Winston O’Boogie. The sighting is mentioned on the cover of his Walls and Bridges album and again on John & Yoko’s Double Fantasy outtake “Nobody Told Me.” An enormous thing, silent and cone-shaped, covered in dazzling lights and close enough to hit with a rock.
There’s UFOs over New York
And I ain’t too surprised
I remember every day and night of every trip to New York City, going back to the first in the summer of 1983: a solo cross-country trip, as a teenager, in my old International Harvester Scout II. The friends and relatives I’d stayed with along the way—West Texas, New Orleans, Appalachia—tried and failed to scare me off from my destination. New York was still chaotic, four decades ago. Every promised horror made me want to go more, stay longer. I parked in a pretty good spot off St. Mark’s Place because I knew the street from a Lou Reed song. My Scout was such a beat-up, Bondo’d wreck that nobody touched it, and I just threw away the parking tickets when I left the East Village two weeks later.
I drove away with a backseat full of bootleg records and cassette tapes. Never went to a play, never went to a museum. Didn’t have the foggiest notion about the rest of the city. A couple years later, my first wife’s grandparents put us up in Flushing, Queens, for a very long Christmas season that stretched into New Year’s week, 1985. That was when I sort of learned to use the subway, to buy same-day tickets for Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway production of A Lie of the Mind, to act unfazed when I ran into Keith Richards at a Bo Diddley show, upstairs at the old Lone Star Cafe, a block away from Union Square.
Over the decades of New York jobs and New York publishers, it would never be home but I’d always be at ease here. I can walk faster than anybody.
Nancy and I hail a ride to the Village Gate site, now called Le Poisson Rouge. Nice joint, very professionally operated. The green room and dressing room are comfortable, well-appointed. There is a bottle of Pinot Noir and a fruit/cheese plate awaiting, per the artist rider. My dear friend and longtime newspaper comrade Matt Welch arrives from Brooklyn; a sound check is quickly performed while people bustle around setting up tables and chairs and the evening’s stage lighting. We head out for a cocktail on Bleecker Street, and I’m relieved to see the bars and cafes fairly bustling.
The show is fine, and afterwards I meet a lot of people who took the trouble to venture out into this strange new American reality where even New Yorkers are loath to venture out unless absolutely necessary. The live-music business is on its deathbed, everywhere. And I don’t even have a band, am lucky to have an audience at all.
Back in the dressing room, a larger group has assembled, and we work at the wine and the cheese and a last round from the bar. The whole place will be locked up well before midnight. Only the old people know this is strange, our present-day early-to-bed step-counting lives.
I’d arrived in the suit I’m still wearing, so the dressing room is relinquished and the survivors head into the West Village night: just me and a Mr. Matthew Phelan, an online buddy from the old Gawker Media network. He’s working on a government-conspiracy podcast series, and he wants to interview me regarding our shared obsession with the flying-saucer phenomenon—a subject recently returned to the headlines, despite a lack of present-day flying-saucer sightings.
We settle into a booth by the front door of an Irish pub, and it’s all as dark-wood and boozy as I remember from decades past, with a handful of young people singing to the jukebox. All the bars close much earlier now, though, so time is short. Who knows if the UFO-podcast recording is any good, although I recall being coherent, keeping the wisecracks to a minimum. But what would it sound like if I was just talking, not performing for a podcast-network show that may or may not ever be released?
Last call is long gone. We finish up drinks and more or less finish the conversation. That’s when a tall and lanky blond character joins our party of two. He’s from Poland, looks like one of Butch Cassidy’s gang from the movie, and easily convinces us to have another Guinness in the park around the corner. It’s a scene I’ve enjoyed a hundred times before, mostly when I lived & worked in Eastern Europe. The garrulous ones are unwilling to give up the night just when things are rolling.
The newcomer insists on buying the Guinness cans—“best enjoyed in a glass”—and we find a park bench. The talk is of poetry, literature, graffiti. That’s what he does, our Polish friend. (Joseph? Was that his name?) Graffiti on the subway bridges, in particular. His phone is full of pictures of these absurdly dangerous art stunts.
Besides the elaborate tagging, sometimes hanging onto trains with mere inches of clearance for a human body, there are the books. He plucks books from the garbage piles of New York City. History, textbooks, novels. If it’s bad, no loss. If it’s good, he hunts for more along those lines.
Mr. Phelan wisely departs as Joseph and I walk into the night. All I do in Manhattan is walk—all I do anywhere, really. Walk, talk, type a little at night, read in the mornings. Matthew’s worried the Polish kid is a hustler, as he’ll later text me. I don’t see it. The Polish kid just wants to talk to somebody who will understand. I’ve got no answers but I understand. I still want whatever he wants, at least on my good days.
We stroll through the Bowery, jabbering about everything. I smoke one of his American Spirits, my first cigarette in a long time. It’s all right. Lately, I’ve been thinking I might write with a little more focus, a little more style, if I started smoking again. Even though I know it was clarity and enthusiasm and youth that made the typing easier, not the poison cigarettes. Still…
I know the rules: You turn off a block early, just to prevent anybody becoming embarrassed. We wish each other well. I tell him to keep typing, keep painting, as long as it’s meaningful.
“You go back to the desert after this?”
“Not yet. I rarely get out of the goddamned desert. This week is my birthday present to myself.”
I march up the stairs, hang up my suit, brush my teeth, set my alarm. The actions of a responsible adult, unfortunately.