I was followed by a team from the Associated Press today: a cameraman, a photographer, and a writer. We were a cumbersome bunch. As I walked down the street, they ran circles around me, jockeying for angles from which to photograph and film me. All the while, I was doing the same with the people I was photographing. We were like our own miniature solar system, orbiting our way down the sidewalks of the East Village. It was quite a spectacle. But everyone was very friendly, we had a good time, and I think collectively we did some great work. But walking back to the subway, alone, I felt much more in my element.
There was a man sitting alone on either 7th, or 8th, or 9th street. He sat on a giant turquoise box in front of a store. I walked up to him: “Do you mind if I take your photograph,” I asked, “sitting just like that?” He turned around and shouted into the open door of the store:
“Hey, everyone! They’re out here taking pictures of me. I’m famous!”
“Go ahead, Governor,” somebody shouted back.
“They call me Governor because I’ve been here so long,” he said. ”You know… like the Governor of the block.” While he was talking, I sat down next to him. The street was empty except for us. It was a quiet moment. I imagined the entire solar system being here, with all of our shuffling and orbiting. Some parts of the project would never be able to be captured on film.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“All my life,” said the Governor. “See those two buildings right there?” He pointed at a couple of three-story buildings across the street. They were painted bright red. “My aunt used to own those two buildings. Then in the early 1940’s she moved back to Italy.”
“That sounds like a weird time to move back to Italy,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. ”But she did. And she sold those two buildings. I’d own those buildings right now if it wasn’t for her. And I’ll tell you what. If I went back to Italy today, I’d water her grave, if you know what I mean.” I laughed.
“I know what you mean.”
“I’d piss on it.’ he said. As we spoke, two men walked by, both of them waved at the Governor.
“You see?” he said, “I know everybody. I’ve been here forever.”
“Where do you work at?” I asked.
“That bar, right there on the corner. It’s called McSorley’s, it’s the oldest bar in New York. And you see that place on the other corner down there–“ He pointed to the opposite end of the street: “ Jimi Hendrix used to play there. I used to go see him and Janis Joplin and Carlos Santana. I was here when the flower people were here. I was here when everyone was here.”
“As somebody who’s lived here for so long, do you think the neighborhood is getting ruined?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, a lot of people think that young rich kids are coming into the neighborhood, running up the property prices, and driving people out. Do you agree with that?”
“Eh…” he said. “Yeah I guess you can say it’s changing.” But really, he didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Or maybe he’s just at an age where he’s got bigger things to worry about.
“It’s not the tenants, anyway,” he said. “It’s the landlords. Cause that’s the people they want. The landlords want these young students to come in every year, have their parents pay the rent, and then move out. That way, they can raise the rent every year.” He smiled at me, like he had a particularly desirable piece of information. “You know how much I pay?” he asked.
“Three hundred dollars a month,” he said. ”Three hundred dollars a month and I live right up there.” He pointed to the third floor of the building we were sitting in front of. “And I’ve got four rooms. Three hundred dollars for four rooms. The people below me pay three thousand for that.”
“In the East Village? How are you pulling that off?” He laughed.
“I’m rent-controlled,” he said. ” You better believe they’d love to get me out of here. But they can’t, I’m rent-controlled. Anyone here before 1969 is rent-controlled. After 1969, they went to rent-stabilized. That means they have a huge meeting every year over there at Cooper Union, and they set the new rents for the year. That’s why the landlords want people moving out so fast, because they can’t charge the new rents until someone moves out. Only us old-timers are rent-controlled. They want us out bad.”
The next person to walk by was an elderly woman. She stopped to talk with the Governor. They spoke briefly about a mutual friend who recently passed away, then she continued on her way.
“Such a nice lady,” said the Governor. “And she’s got bone cancer. Just awful. God awful. “
“Oh man,” I said.
“Yep. And look at her—out walking, just as sweet as she can be. You know sometimes I want to complain, and I tell myself, ‘Johnny, you have your legs, you’re out walking, you need to be thankful of what you got.”
“And you’ve got $300 rent,” I said, smiling.
“That too,” said the Governor.
“Governor, before I go, do you mind if I photograph you in front of McSorley’s?”
“Oldest bar in the city,” he said.