Down the block Albert worked at a dry cleaner. He worked there after school. He was Lebanese. This was primarily a Lebanese and Syrian neighborhood going back a long time. Sahadi, a famous Middle East importer of spices and food, was just a few blocks away. You could smell the spices, barrels full of olives, and many cheeses, and baklavas. Many smaller shops catered to the Lebanese of the neighborhood and to the Middle East restaurants all over the city. And there were small restaurants scattered up and down Atlantic in a ten block area, and bakeries too. It was like a neighborhood in Beirut but, of course, there were the outlanders like me and some Italian mixes like Tom and Angelo and some Spanish too like Gallego at the grocery store where we bought chicken and Santiago in the barber shop.
These Lebanese were Catholic, not Muslim. Nobody was walking around with head gear, covered up like mummies. Albert was a good Catholic Lebanese boy, the kind of kid that, if you had a son, you would want him to be like Albert. He was nice looking, slightly big for the gene pool, and polite and friendly. I always had time to talk to him. I guess I was somebody he looked up to, probably because I seemed to be cool, have enough money, live in a hip loft building like an artist and have a lot of time to do nothing. I’m sure he gave that some thought while he plugged away at that mind-numbing job he had.
“Rick,” he said one day out in front of the cleaners, “You know Rick I have never seen you do a day’s work!” That took me back a little because he was making a good point. Up to that time I am not sure I ever did a day’s work. I had done ok at school doing maybe half a day’s work. I didn’t know what to say to him except “Well, Albert, when I do get one of these photo jobs they pay pretty well. So, between jobs I have a lot of time.” He just shook his head and said “Nice job if you can get it.”
Caroline’s father and brother were engineers, the type of guys who can figure out mechanical problems. Caroline knew how to do some of these things too and that fascinated me. Everything I tried to fix broke almost immediately. So our relationship had to do with that to some extent, to fixing things in the loft and building a darkroom, which was supposed to encourage me to be professional about the photography thing.
The loft was an exciting place with brick walls and a cavernous space divided up into different living areas, a place near the big front windows above the street for plants, a desk for each of us, plus a living room area, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a darkroom under construction.
Caroline was very good with plants. She was friends with a guy who ran the greenhouses for Columbia University. She had worked at Columbia at one time and had gotten interested in plants through this guy whose name was Dan. She got me to help her fix up the roof garden better with more barrels from Sahadi for planting. In good weather it was a very pleasant place to be.
There probably is some kind of subconscious action drawing people together for good reasons even if they are left wondering what the hell they are doing with that other person. Maybe they are attracted to learn what the other one seems to know. Looking at it now, I see that Caroline had roots in the country, Arkansas, and a father and brother who could help me learn to be a man and know how to fix things, work with my hands. She was in the film business which related to my photography. She was a good photographer in her own right, and she was great with plants. Those things became very important to me later on.
I had an old beat up Renault, a 1965 R8 I had bought from the receptionist’s boyfriend at the doctor’s office where my sister Ann worked. I went to a locked garage in Queens that was full of cars, all stolen no doubt.” Pick any one you want, Rick. I will give you a good price.” So I picked that old blue Renault with the V shaped hood and the trunk in the front and the engine in the back. It had the most comfortable seats of any car in the world and a great transmission, four on the floor. It was a great car but nothing special to look at. Cost me five hundred bucks. Things would go wrong and, naturally, it also needed basic maintenance. Jean, from the upstairs loft, and I liked to work on our cars parked at the curb outside at the summit of Atlantic before it pitched down the hill toward the harbor. It was good to be at the top of the hill. That helped many times when my car wouldn’t start the normal way and I could get out, push it over the last little rise, and jump start it as gravity took over and it gained speed.
Atlantic Avenue is a major artery going all the way east and west across Brooklyn to Queens, a wide four- lane thoroughfare with parking on both sides and broad sidewalks too, a street full of trucks making deliveries all over the city, a humming street, a banging street full of action and life, horns honking, people yelling, brakes screeching, and, always somewhere, an ambulance or cop car siren screaming. Depending on your mental condition it either sounded like music or torture. But on Sundays in the morning it was quiet, and on a bright clear day Jean and I would mess around with our cars, get grease on our hands, and manage to replace a water pump or a belt or change the oil. Jean was French Jewish and spoke French. Like me he had red hair. He and his wife Maddy were five years older than I was and already had direction in life, upward direction. They had fixed their loft in a mod way- all white- and were fussy that everything should be just so. They were the first generation of yuppies, making their way into a prosperous future. They were a little bit ahead of themselves though. Jean didn’t have a job and Maddy was in school trying to be a psychologist. I suppose their parents were helping them; it wasn’t clear.
Jean always wore one of those white sleeveless tee shirts. He had those biceps all young boys wish they had and he wanted to make sure everyone saw them. His red hair was slicked back with the aid of some pomade. With a nice pair of Levis and some flip flops he created a little oasis of cool decorum and gentility on the block. Somehow he managed to work on his car without messing up his image. And image was important to him because he was in the process of trying to get a job in public relations.
In the late sixties there was a lot going in in America. The Vietnam War which the Vietnamese call “the American War” was raging. Civil rights marches and riots were common. Assassinations happened unthinkably and often. There was a revolution under way. To be hip was to be not involved with the establishment at all. I did my best to avoid being identified with the establishment by covering the marches in New York and Washington with my camera and photographing the pop icons of the time. I was on the cusp of having a real career as a photographer and photojournalist. And yet, I had real doubts about the whole thing, the “whole trip” as we phrased it then.
As an antidote to the “whole trip” as it was laid out before us, Caroline and I were learning meditation in a group meeting in lower Manhattan once a month under the direction of an Indian philosophy student named Kumar. It was a serious undertaking especially for someone as restless as I was. The group had about twenty people including Alan Ginsburg and his crazy coterie. That group showed up about half the sessions and usually disrupted things with behavior such as cursing or lighting a cigarette when we were supposed to be silently concentrating on the inner self and saying our mantra. But Alan was friends with Kumar and Kumar, like a lot of gurus around in those days, had stars in his eyes about American opportunity and fame. So he gave Alan a lot of slack the rest of us didn’t get.
My neighbor Jean was on the other side of all this. Public relations work was seen by the counter culture as being the lying mouthpiece for the establishment. Our fantasy was utopian and, of course, totally vague and blurry with pot smoke. Anyway, in his case, it was not easy to be proud of a public relations job and Jean was a sensitive guy, so he suffered.
Around the corner on Clinton Street there was another guy on a see-saw balancing between the new world in process and the old one he had been born into. His name was Jimmy Aboud and he was even younger than I was- maybe twenty and he had a girlfriend, Marilyn. They were living together without the sanction of marriage. Even that was considered a move against the establishment in those days. At the same time they ran a little candy and newspaper shop. The kid was a great personality- full of fun and life and smart enough to run his business, make a little profit from the shop, and pay the bills despite taking plenty of time off to play chess and smoke pot while Marylyn minded the store.
Chess in Brooklyn in 1969 could not have been more exciting. Or native son, Bobby Fischer, was on his way to becoming the world chess federation champion, an unprecedented achievement for an American. At the time the cold war was raging and the Russians dominated chess. Fischer was, is and always will be one of the greatest chess geniuses of all time- exciting, crazy, and brilliant. On the block we worshipped him and a lot of us were playing chess because of him. Chess can draw you in. It looks quiet and tame from the outside but on the inside it is life and death. Nothing is more exciting than a close game against a worthy opponent. Throw in some of that Columbian weed and anything could happen!
Jimmy was part of our gang and so was Anthony, Angelo’s son. Anthony had a ferocious attack, and Bobby the baker came after work for a long deliberate game, and Rod, the aspiring rock star, and Angel, the “white knight” on his big white motorcycle. Among us there was always a game or two going at the shop or at Tom’s apartment around the corner from Jimmy’s store. Nobody really dominated. We were all pretty good. Tom was the best during this period but I was coming along because I was addicted to it and reading about it and visiting other venues in Manhattan.
That was my focus during those years. Chess dominated my life the way shooting pool had done a few years earlier. Looking back, it was good I had that focus or at least focus on something other than getting high or drunk. I talked to a college friend years later after he had finally attained sobriety and a good life. Now he was running marathons instead of guzzling Irish whiskey and he said, “Yeah Rick but you always had something else going on, something you were trying to learn or accomplish. I didn’t have that. I didn’t have anything but the booze.” My interests saved me.