Taylor Mead’s Lost East Village


Arts & Culture

Taylor Mead is dishing gossip. “For our final exam”—in boarding school, where he studied English with the novelist John Horne Burns—“he said, write four hundred to five hundred lines of poetry from memory. It was unbelievable. He killed poetry for me. I haven’t been able to read more than two poems a month since.” Burns would later write a novel loosely based on his time teaching at the school, rife with homosexual undertones. Taylor said he would have enjoyed school if he knew all the great stuff that was happening behind the scenes. “If they want me to make a commencement speech, they better fasten their seat belts,” he joked.

Taylor sat across from me at a small table near the front door of Lucien, a French bistro on First Avenue near the corner of First Street. When I walked in the door, the legendary East Village resident and professional bohemian was already sipping from a glass of Dewar’s, waiting patiently. Lucien is Taylor’s favorite restaurant; it’s one of the few places he leaves the apartment for. At eighty-seven, he still resides in the neighborhood he has called home, more or less, for more than four decades. Now, though, he has trouble walking more than a few blocks. Add to that continued threats of eviction from his rent-stabilized Ludlow Street apartment. According to Taylor, the heat in his building has not worked all winter. When I asked Taylor if he ever considered leaving New York, he wistfully looked away (a look he will repeat many times over our conversation). “For the rest of my life,” he says slowly, “I would spend three months Greece, three months France, six months New York, if I had a choice.”

The owner of Lucien is friends with Taylor and, based on the number of photographs dangling from the walls, every other artist who has ever resided on the Lower East Side. Many of the people in the photographs are not alive anymore, and most had some connection to Taylor, one way or another. It works oddly well as a mural of the neighborhood, a paean to the old days, but can also be seen as a stark reminder of the changing face of the neighborhood. As your eyes roam the walls, falling upon artists barely known outside a twelve-block radius, you can’t help but notice the one outcast: Ryan Gosling, the face of the new neighborhood.

A block away, construction resumes where the former Mars Bar once stood. A beautiful eyesore, marred with graffiti and proudly erect, the former watering hole will now be the site of condos. Taylor remembers reading poetry there but can’t remember when. His memory is like this: stories float in and out of time. Dates don’t matter much to Taylor. A block up from the former Mars Bar sits Anthology Film Archives, where, the night after our lunch, Taylor would be appearing with a restored print of Passion in a Seaside Slum (1961), a film he made in California. He didn’t remember much about it but thought the film was silent. He asked me to remind him later to buy batteries for his cassette-tape player. He hoped to play his Charles Mingus tape for the crowd during the screening.

But at the moment, Taylor’s main concern was his local bodega, which he claims is turning into a boutique. He’s not sure where he will buy groceries and is afraid there will be nowhere close enough to walk to. The upside is he will inherit the bodega’s cat, Napoleon. Mead used to feed the local stray cats, down on Eldridge Street and around the Second Avenue cemetery, but because of a few minor strokes over the past couple of years, he has had to give the practice up. “A little old lady took over,” he tells me. He is looking forward to having a new cat around. We discussed our mutual love of animals, and, feeling guilty, Taylor looked down at the sausage he’d ordered. “I’m a vegetarian, but once a month I cheat,” he quipped. “I was very strict for forty years. For ten years I wouldn’t even eat fish. Then I realized they eat each other, so what the fuck.”

It was at this moment that the first person popped his head in the door of the restaurant to say hello to Taylor. It happened five times during our meal. I got the sense that everyone around here knew Taylor. But when I asked him who his friends were when he first came to New York, his reaction was suprising. “I never spent time with anybody or anything,” he said sadly. “I’m not a poet—I’m a drifter in the arts.”

When Taylor drifted to New York, after a stint in the poetry clubs of San Francisco in the late fifties, he found himself in the midst of a vibrant scene. “McDougal Street is where everything was,” he remembered. He fondly recalled night after night spent at the Gaslight, a basement café that no longer exists. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso would read there often. Bill Cosby was a regular. “The police wanted to close the place because of Allen’s and my language. The owner would sit there with a shotgun. This was the early days of New York. He sat down there with a shotgun! New York was so wild. It still is, really.” It was at the Gaslight that Taylor would run into Bob Dylan, a fan. “I gave him my very first book of poetry [1962’s Excerpts from the Anonymous Diary of a New York Youth]. At that time he was unknown. Later, he came out with Blonde on Blonde, his greatest album, and he wanted my next book. I said, ‘Bob, you can afford it now!’ He said, ‘Oh, I only get paid every quarter.’ So I had to give him my book.”

“It was so important to have center places,” Mead went on. “Now, instead of five hundred artists there are fifty thousand in New York. There is no center. Max’s Kansas City was central to us.” Opened at the tail end of 1965, Max’s Kansas City quickly became the place where everyone—poets, artists, musicians, and other assorted freaks—spent their nights. Mead first heard of the club during his brief self-imposed exile in Europe, where he hung out with the Living Theater, traveling with a tin canister containing his film The Flower Thief (financed on forged checks) under his arm. In Paris, he ran into Max’s owner, Mickey Ruskin, who told him he had a new place where Taylor would fit right in. “That did it. That day I came back I went right to Max’s,” Taylor smiled. He quickly found a place in the infamous back room, which Andy Warhol and the denizens of the Factory called home. “I had my table in the back with Nico,” Taylor told me. “I think she was on heroin or something, we just liked to sit next to each other. She wasn’t a conversationalist,” he laughed.

After Max’s closed, things weren’t the same. Taylor spent some time at the Mudd Club, where he filmed a public-access television show and continued to read poetry and perform in theatrical productions at La MaMa Theatre; later, he spent time at Max Fish, before, as he claims, he was insulted by the bartender and forced to take his business elsewhere. The Mudd Club closed in 1983; La MaMa is a shell of its former self; Max Fish will, it’s being said, close in the next year due to escalating rents. People and places are gone for good, and during our conversation the East Village begins to sound more and more like a ghost town. Taylor is the last resident, the final holdout.

These days, Taylor can be found every Monday night at the Bowery Poetry Club, where he holds a long-term residency. At the moment, he is hoping to publish his autobiography. It’s titled Son of Andy Warhol. It was spontaneously written over a two month period but has been sitting with an agent for more than two years, in limbo. “I know it’s good,” Taylor told me. He was especially excited about how the book will embarrass his high-society family in Michigan.

As we finished our meal, Taylor wanted to make clear that, although the neighborhood has changed drastically, he still enjoys being here. “I love my neighborhood. And I love the new yuppies, they’re very nice. They help me get out of cabs.” After lunch, we walked to the bodega that is soon to be a boutique. In the two blocks we walked, multiple people stopped Taylor to say hello. Inside, he immediately called out for the store’s cat. “Napoleon!” he yelled. No cat emerged. We found out later he was gone.

Craig Hubert is a freelance writer based in New York