The following was originally printed in The New York Times Magazine on November 20, 1988, and reprinted in ‘Bullet in Flight’, a collection of Suzanne’s lyrics published in 1990 by Omnibus Press.
Copyright Omnibus Press, 1990
Copyright /Waifersongs Ltd.
Blue Sky And Blood On 10th Avenue
When I was growing up I spent five years in Spanish Harlem and ten years on the Upper West Side. The streets were always crowded with different types of of people: kids from the projects, white liberals, students from Columbia. But I didn’t hang out much. You could find me in my room, or in the park by the river. Facing south on an afternoon and seeing the angles of sunlight gave me a weird sense of orientation. As a child, I felt: “The sun is there. It’s high and on my right. I am here. Everything is O.K.” As an adult I had stopped going to the park on the weekends, and that feeling rarely, if ever, visited again.
So it was about 4 o’clock on a cold Sunday, and I was out walking downtown. At 10th Avenue and 14th Street, or thereabouts, suddenly the rest of the city fell away, and I felt that same weird sense of orientation. I was in the meat market area.
The buildings in front of me were long and low, and the sky seemed very wide and intensely blue. It was a shock after the relentless verticality of the city behind me. Because of the cobblestone streets, the tin doors with porthole windows like a ship’s kitchen, the ivy on the bricks, the river on my right, I thought for a minute I was somewhere else. Cannery Row, maybe.
It was quiet and still, with a lonely feeling. A strange landscape of cool, fat shadows and slices of dazzling sun on tin. Later, when I lived on Horatio street, where the meat market ends, I learned the neighborhood’s other moods and faces, but 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon is still my favorite time of day there.
If you look past the serene surface, you find clues to the violence beneath. The most obvious are the painted signs, worn and flaking: “Baby Lamb! Young Kid! Fancy Poultry!” “Breasts, Thighs, Hearts, Livers, Wings.” “Boxed Beef.” Words that in another context can be sensual, or tender, or playfully erotic, here read like pornography or skewered poetry.
The elevated tracks with their big metal beams seem to shelter this empty place. Pigeons roost under these beams, and fly freely where their relatives are slaughtered every day. Little rivers of blood run along the cracks in the sidewalk, mixing with the sawdust. Or your foot is surprised by a skid of animal fat, white and greasy.
It feels like an underworld. If you see anyone, it might be a man with a wool cap and a big belly and a cigar. He doesn’t want you looking at him or minding his business. There is an atmosphere of unseen deals, people watching and being watched, violence about to happen.
And at night when the meat shops close, the other “meat shops” open – the transvestites begin peddling after dark. What are they selling, exactly? I’m not sure. Things are displayed, discussed, bargained for and maybe sold in a quick sleight-of-hand; but you see it only from the corner of your eye, as you walk by fast or speed past in a car. Long, thin mincing men, swaybacked and fiercely feminine, parade on the corners, their skinny masculine legs tottering in high heels and ragged pantyhose. Sometimes there is a bonfire, and you see a few of them, with one womanly man dressed in what seems to be a bathing suit and a full-length fur coat, calling to you, laughing, preening, fixing his lipstick. The graffiti read: “Silence = Death.” “Linda, I love you. Frank.”
In the morning, though, the place bustles. That’s the time I’m least familiar with. It’s crowded with trucks and truckers-to get anywhere you wind and dodge your way through a thick traffic of men in bloody white aprons and slabs of meat swinging on hooks. By 2 in the afternoon it has settled down. By 4 o’clock it has regained the stoic feeling of an Edward Hopper painting, with calm cubes of color and long rectangular shadows, and a soft windy rustle of pigeons and the river.