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Wigstock Revisited

Paul Morgan’s photographs at Mundo Images evoke memories of gentrification and AIDS on NYC’s Lower East Side in the early 1980s

I was on the road in New England selling dorm-ready reproduction prints from the trunk of my ’77 Chevelle when three things happened: My wife sued for divorce and sold our townhouse, and the graphics company I worked for found out I was shifting the dorm art out of its plastic mattes and replacing it with my artist friends’ mono prints.

Now I was recovering from an evening spent with some Yale Divinity School students who, having heard the news that Muddy Waters died, found some bottles of communion practice wine. Invited back to their room, I drank a number of toasts to the master blues man and retired to the faculty parking lot, where I spent the night in the car. In the morning I decided to drive down to New York City.

I called an old friend to let him know I would be in town. He lived down on the Lower East Side. Previously I’d only ever been on St Mark’s Place, having literally been driven directly there for the expressed purpose of picking up something for a few very particular people back in Georgetown.

Manhattan might as well, for all my sense of direction, been a Tibetan sand maze. One phone call would have to suffice as I exited at 168th Street off the George Washington Bridge, held my breath, and gingerly slipped onto the Henry Hudson Parkway slithering down into the gut of New York.

Three hours later I was, perforce, a roommate. I sold the car and through a school friend got a job in a Soho art gallery framing company and another as a part-time doorman in a high- end condominium called the Silk Building on East 4th Street. This building also housed Tower Records and Virgin Island Records, so lots of recording rock musicians shuffled through the massively tromp l’oieled lobby replete with colorful murals detailing every stage of the silkworm industry. In the late 19th century the building was the center of the silk trade in Manhattan. Now it was home to Keith Richards and Cher.

Keith owned two floors of the co-op—one a complete state-of-the-art recording studio so he wouldn’t have to leave his house to record. By now Keith was famously hermitic and rarely left the building till late at night for fear of being mobbed by fans. (Mick was persona non grata in the building at that time.) Once at three AM, hardly anyone on the street, he came home from a long dinner at Benihana’s with a jeroboam of Saki slung over his shoulder like a side of beef. “Hey, Ray,” he said, “want some saki?” I hoisted my little Styrofoam cup and he dismounted the huge bottle, pouring me a large tot to greet the dawn in downtown Manhattan.

On the second floor there was an AIDS clinic. By spring of 1983 it had become very active. On day shift I would announce individuals to the doctor’s office.

Couples, one or the other in the earliest stages, waiting for the elevator, would meet and greet friends coming and going through the lobby masking mounting anxiety with high spirits. Lawyers, accountants, designers, actors, writers, and all kinds of theater people made their way to the second floor. Some wore tight jeans and T-shirts, some Barney’s bespoke suits and English handmade shoes, teasing each other about attractive weight loss and how ”you can never be too thin.”

After a three-month stint on overnights, I returned to the day shift. Now the patients were less spirited in making the trip to the clinic; their humor blacker, bitter, ironic. Some came in looking fragile, evident sores, hair loss, dark sunglasses, supported by canes or partners, finally carried in on the shoulders of their fellows from the cab out front.

The West Village’s generally uproarious Halloween parade that year included a long, silent procession of tributes to those missing from the march; portraits with names were held aloft on sticks—quilt-like banners drove the hard truth down 8th Avenue. We were witnessing the fatalities in the cultural arts and the professional class where AIDS had struck them down. The “gay plague” they called it.

Coming to work that fall I went to the lobby storage closet to hang up my coat. All kinds of items found their way there: children’s expensive outgrown castoffs, sports equipment, computer paper, umbrellas, stacks of magazines, wine bottles, and, on this day, three tidy cardboard boxes marked “silk bldg lobby staff.” Inside were brand new shirts, pants, neck ties, even pairs of shoes, an entire wardrobe neatly donated to anyone on the staff who could use them by a partner of a young lawyer who no longer needed them. The super was superstitious and wouldn’t touch them. The other doormen either felt the same or were not a size 15 1⁄2” neck, 31” waist, 9 1/2 shoe. I took the ties.

We’ve been floating bumptiously along now for now near 30 years since the “simultaneous assaults of HIV/AIDS, Reaganomics, slum lords,” etc., that photographer Paul Morgan cites as the cultural point of reckoning bringing about the “pillage of the village” and culminating in “a gender-bending parody of American pop culture” at Tompkins Square Park in the late summer of 1984. I was living by then in a co-op loft sublet on John Street two blocks from the Trade Towers but still spent much of my time in the surrounds of “Loisaida,” as the neighborhood came to be called, also known as “Alphabet City” for the naming of streets. The St. Mark’s Theater showed Blade Runner every night for the midnight show, Velselka’s Restaurant was for Sunday breakfast, or alternately the Kiev. New places to eat and drink were popping up everywhere but Starbucks was not yet a household word.

Morgan’s black-and-white photographs are candid recollections of that time when creative people of all talents read the graffiti on the tenement walls: gentrification, a promise and a curse. Tompkins Square had become a gathering place for the demimonde soon to be bereft of their pre-war apartments on A, B or C Street as developers not that quietly began to push the itinerant and largely immigrant population out of “the last bastion of affordable Bohemia in Manhattan,” as Paul Morgan so trenchantly puts it in his artist’s statement. The “creative rage of a few gifted misfits” was evident in the spectacle of “Wigstock,” a drag queen extravaganza that started impromptu after a night of clubbing at a dance venue nearby and became a yearly event signaling the end of summer and turning into a Labor Day gay fest that has recently grown to the point that it needs security and porta-potties.

Morgan’s photos of Wigstock crystallize a glittering moment when the cultural momentum in the social, political, psychological spheres of a dystopic population began to actively link up their separate variances and see themselves as equally oppressed, becoming symbiotically united to resist the conservative/fundamentalist social forces taking form within the character of our national identity. His images of the costumed queens bring viewers a poignant reminder that people must be demonstrably committed to a cause—must stand out in an exaggerated fashion—to be seen, to be heard, and ultimately to be taken seriously.

Cher moved in toward the end of my time at the Silk Building. Since I began working there I had re-married and moved up to Washington Heights over looking the George Washington Bridge, then to an illegal sublet down in historic Peter Stuyvesant Village, and finally to a refinished boxcar loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, following the typical artist’s orderly retreat from Manhattan to the outer boroughs. I had had two pretty good years with a major gallery on 57th Street and, with a baby coming, was soon to take up a position as visiting artist at University of Texas Austin, leaving New York City to whomever would or could stay. The first and only exchange I had with tenant Cher went like this: Entering the lobby from her limo, she stepped away from her cadre of assistants and approached the desk. As I rose to meet her, said, without a greeting, “You know who I am.” (It was not a question.) I said yes. “You know where I live.” I said yes. “Good,” she said and disappeared into the faux marbled facade of the first of two available elevators.

Paul Morgan’s Wigstock photographs were displayed for the firt time at Artspace this spring. They have now moved to Mundo Images Gallery (500 Franklin Street), where there will be an opening reception on Friday, July 1, 6-9pm.

j. tim raymond

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