Me at my book table on 8th Street & Broadway in the early ’90s.
Throughout the mid-1970s, the off-off Broadway theater movement was in full swing, small venues dotted Lower Manhattan back when the city was empty & cheap. Theater space could be had for as little as 25 cents per square foot for a month! My father who was dying of ALS, was constantly dragging one of my brothers or myself off to see these oddball productions. It became a strange form of punishment for us teenagers, being forced to watch as many as 9 plays a week. (sometimes we’d see 2 plays on weekends, both a matinee and evening play.) By the time he died in ’77, I suffered through a couple hundred, usually experimental, frequently amateurish (occasionally brilliant) plays.
I always thought, given the opportunity I can do better than most of them! By the mid 1980s, while in my mid-20s, I finished my first novel, The Fuck-Up. After submitting to scores of agents, I finally found representation, that agent submitted it over 30 publishers. By 1989, he declared that the novel —which eventually became Akashic’s first book and then get picked up by MTV books where it’d sell over a 120,000 copies — was unpublishable.
With little else to lose, remembering all those off-off Broadway plays, and with nothing left to lose, I decided to try my hand at playwriting. Throughout the early 1990s, I wrote plays. Once finished, I would workshop them at my uncle’s law firm on the 3rd floor of the Empire State building. This meant getting a group of actors to do round table readings & finding others to critique. When I could do no more, I’d start mailing them out to countless companies all over the city and country. Eventually, I was able to find tiny venues in Lower Manhattan who agreed to co-produce them. This meant I had to pay for the production, but I could perform it in their space & we’d split the minuscule box office receipts.
At the time I had just gotten my Masters and was working as an adjunct lecturer for the City University of New York. I also had roommates to help cover my rent, but it wasn’t really enough to pay for the productions which cost thousands of dollars — everything from rehearsal space, cost of set design, lightning, a stage manager and so on. Let me also pause here and thank the tireless efforts of many friends and actors (via Backstage) to whom I will always be grateful. In an effort to raise the cash, I applied for a number of grants, but was unable to ever win one.
As an adjunct I had a limit to how many classes I was able to teach, so I needed a new profession. Because I always collected books, I had a group of (sometimes shady) friends who sold books on the streets. So I decided to give this a shot. I found collapsible tables, a hand truck and already had stacks of books filling my cramped room. Overnight I became a bookseller. I began wheeling my mobile business throughout the neighborhood: 4th Street in front of NYU, Cooper Square, and (pictured above) on 8th Street between Broadway & Lafayette. During the mornings & afternoons, I’d work the book table and in the evenings I’d teach at either BMCC or Hostos Community College up in the Bronx. At night I’d write. I could easily fill a book about this period in my life. Suffice it to say by ’97 I had produced four 2-act plays, which were eventually published in a single volume as East Village Tetralogy (Akashic Books, 2005, pictured below). It costs me more money, labor and stress that I could afford, but can purchased on Amazon for as little as $1.66 ((https://www.amazon.com/East-Village-Tetralogy-Four-Plays/dp/1888451858/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
After my last play was produced, leaving me broke and culminating in a break up and being forced to go to a food pantry in order to eat until my next paycheck came in, I decided that it was time to leave the theater. Around then, I remember running into an old friend who had just kicked his heroin habit. When we compared our lives: nearly 40, broke, single, in bad health, he said, “At least with heroin, I’d get high.”
He had me there.