Washington Square Park Circa 1985

I remember watching a homeless guy pull a knife on a cop in the Washington Square Park fountain.  The guy had been sitting in the fountain drinking from a liquor bottle wrapped in a paper bag and John “Dr. Juice” Allicock, the leader of the Calypso Tumblers asked him to move so they could do their show.  The homeless guy just cursed at the tumblers, so they yelled for a cop to come remove the guy.  When the cop approached him, the homeless guy pulled out a knife and the cop had to grab it and wrestle him down.  I was pretty scared.  The Calypso Tumblers didn’t seem too rattled.  With his thick Caribbean accent, Allicock just said “One ass-ole want to mess up de show”.  After the guy was removed, the tumblers just got right back on with the act.

The Calypso tumblers performed every weekend in Washington Square. Young and covered in muscles, they did flips in the air and folded themselves in all kinds of crazy shapes.  A new generation of the act still exists today and performs in the park.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw those guys do their thing for the tourists.  I used to know their whole act by heart.  I knew when every joke was coming and I liked watching each audience react differently.  I spent a lot of Saturdays sitting in that park for hours at a time and I knew all of the park performers.  Even on weekends when I had no money for record shopping, ten dollars could buy me a day in the Village when I was in junior high.  The commuter train was $3.50 each way.  Two subway tokens cost two dollars and the extra dollar bought two 50 cent hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya on 8th street, upon which I could survive.  Just to be away from all of the “normality” of my suburban town was fun enough for me.  I’ve always really enjoyed people-watching and sitting quietly in big, noisy places.  I almost always went downtown with my friend Josh and stayed the night at his aunt’s house on 8th and McDougal.  Sometimes other guys came along.  A few times I even went alone, though I never told my parents.

The Village of 1980’s had a remarkably different feeling than the Village of today.    Everything was a lot dirtier and grittier.  Graffiti covered subway cars were still the norm.  Homeless people lived more openly in public enclaves.  The Bowery was still filled with derelict drunks and drug users. Cashiers behind protective cages would sell single cigarettes to street people in Bowery bodegas.  It seemed like cigarette smoking, cigarette advertisements and cigarette butts were everywhere in New York.  Drinking and drugs were everywhere too.  People from all walks of life drank beer on the street, in cans and bottles wrapped in paper bags.  If the cops saw you drinking beer out of an open container they’d say “Put it in a bag,” and keep going.  The sale of illegal drugs in Washington Square was at an all time high.  I wasn’t interested in buying drugs but I always felt honored and tough just being offered.  Nobody ever bugged me if I just said “no, thanks”.  My group of friends didn’t get through those years without some drug experimentation, police run-ins and ugly moments.  I tried some stuff, but I was mostly too chicken to do anything really dangerous.

I did smoke way too many cigarettes as a teenager.  There was no legal age for the sale of tobacco back then.  I really wanted to be cool like my favorite rock stars, though I would have completely denied that if you had asked me back then.  I always tried to look grown up, urban and bohemian when we went downtown.  I’m sure I only succeeded in my own mind, but at least that helped me feel more comfortable.  Josh and I both usually wore cheap overcoats from the Salvation Army thrift store over our t-shirts, jeans and converse high-tops.   Where we came from, that was pretty darned bohemian.  Most of the other kids we knew weren’t going down to Greenwich Village on the weekends.  Most of our friends’ parents thought the Village was way too dangerous for their kids.  Josh’s father was the only person I knew who encouraged us to go.  He was a professor of urban planning at Hunter College and he seemed very happy to see a couple of sheltered Larchmont kids eager to take in the more diverse experience of the city.  He used to give us a pep talk before we left for the train.  He delivered his speech passionately and always ended with the tag lines “See everything, experience everything.  Look but don’t stare.”  We loved the “look but don’t stare” speech.  We often asked Josh’s dad for an encore performance.

A great deal of our time was spent both looking and staring at people in the park.  Josh said “hello” to strangers all the time.  We both enjoyed talking to whatever weird characters we could find.  We both learned kind of quickly that people who wanted to be your new best friend usually wanted something from you.  Still, there were some who just liked talking.  We were friendly with various and sundry punk rockers and skateboarders from around the New York area.  Sometimes we’d run into them.  We knew some transient hippie types too.  Among the regular performers and artists in the park, there were a few we particularly loved to watch.  Others really annoyed us, but we kind of loved to laugh about them too.  There’s no way I could remember all of the acts we used to watch and I know I’d get bored going through them all but here are a few of the main ones I recall the best:

1.Rodney Yates, Public Astrologer

Rodney was in the park every day for 20 years or more.  He might still be there.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  He always wore a sweatshirt with the word Astrologer written out in iron-on letters.  He always carried a large, very chewed up astrology reference book.  He had composed rhyming, jiving speeches about the significance of your astrological sign ready for you.  He read your palm and he’d tell you the same few lines about yourself every time if you let him.  He moved away from you quickly if you weren’t going to pay him.  His teeth were in very bad shape.  On several occasions I remember watching him read a woman’s star chart and hearing him tell her “you hot to trot.”

2.Ellis Hooks

Ellis sang and played an acoustic guitar for hours every day.  I really idolized him.  He’d work the whole day in the park on Saturdays and came out of there with a deep bucket of bills and change.  One time Josh and I sat with Ellis for 4 or 5 hours.  We requested songs, collected change for him and brought him a cold drink.  He joked around with us.  I felt so cool that he even talked to us.  I learned Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” from Ellis.  I just loved the way he sang it.  He sang a lot of old pop songs too.  I remember him doing Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love is”.  Even the corniest numbers he sang with a lot of feeling.  Twenty years later I was playing a gig in a club on St. Mark’s Place and I ran into Ellis, sitting at the bar.  He hadn’t aged much.

3.Albert Owens

There were a lot of performers who performed inside the Washington Square fountain when it wasn’t gushing water.  Albert Owens was the one I remember seeing there the most.  Albert was a commentator and comedian.  To a 12-year-old white kid from the soft suburbs, he seemed angry and obsessed with the topic of race and white people.  When I think back on a lot of his material now, I can see that he was just telling it the way it was.  He was very smart and often hilarious, though never polished.  He was a brave performer for sure; a gritty guy, who was rough around the edges.  He died not long ago on the street in Europe due to complications from a seizure, while traveling around performing over there.

4. Tony Vera and the Tony Vera Fire Show

Tony wore a fireman’s hat and ate fire.  He also balanced a bicylcle on his chin, did several other tricks and told a lot of jokes.  In the wintertime, Tony worked as a peanut, soda and beer vender at Madison Square Garden.  One of his regular gags was to ask if there was anyone in the crowd from the South.  When someone would say “yes” he’d put a rope around his neck and ask “Does this remind you of anything?”  Years later, Tony moved to Los Angeles and did his act on Venice boardwalk.  I think he became a news reporter of some kind too.

5.  Rico Fonseca

Rico had a big cart, which he called his “outdoor gallery” with photos of his paintings on them.  He wheeled the cart out from a garage every day and sat selling prints of his paintings in front of an iron gate on MacDougal Street.  Rico was from Peru, but he had been a black light poster artist in California in the 60’s.  He made large paintings that had to do with different themes.  Most of his paintings had pictures of famous people taken from photos.  Sometimes the likenesses were a bit silly and cartoony but we just loved them.  Josh bought a print of Rico’s painting of 60’s rock stars called “Flower Child”.  I used to like to see how many of the famous hippies I could name.  Eventually, Rico got commissioned to make murals for some of the businesses in the Village.  He too might still be out there, though I haven’t checked for him in long time.

There were many more characters and several more performers that made weekends in the Village colorful.  I saw a pre-fame Dave Chapelle do stand up in the park.  I saw an escape artist get stuck in his chains when a couple of wise-ass punks ran away with the key.  I remember hearing him tell the mean teens “When you think about it, you’re wearing more chains then I am.”…

….Much more to remember, but perhaps another day.  How about you?  Did you ever hang out in Washington Square Park?  In what era?  Do you remember any of the performers, artists or recurring characters from that time?  I’d love to hear about them.

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16 Responses to Washington Square Park Circa 1985

  1. April Spicer says:

    Great morning read. I was a Tompkins Square Park girl myself. Would sometimes skip school to catch old movies at Theater 80 or would come after school to meet friends so we could get “up to no good” (which really wasn’t bad – our parents just thought it was).

    Like you I came from a type of suburb but mine was the boonies of Brooklyn which I couldn’t wait to escape from. So we would hang out all day in the City and then either catch some live music on the way home (the old Ritz or L’amour in Brooklyn) or make the house party rounds. I still love NY but like you said it felt different then – more raw and open and available to anyone. Ash thought that was what he was going to get when he arrived in 2003 based on films like the French Connection and the Taking of Pelham One Two Three he watched growing up in Italy. Instead he got Giuliani time.

    Keep writing – we love it!

    • Milty Rose says:

      Thanks! The East Village started for me with the CBGB Sunday Matinees, the record stores on St. Mark’s and the poetry at the St. Mark’s church. My brother’s band actually played at the Ritz, opening for the Damned. That was huge to us. I never made it out to L’amour, but that place was always legendary. There was a funky place on Rivington St. called ABC No Rio, that’s still there that had punk shows. Back West, there was always a pretty good scene at the 8th Street Playhouse, especially for Friday night “Rocky Horror”. I have the vaguest memory of the Popeye Doyle era New York from my earliest years, but not really. Sometimes I think people still arrive in New York today with that notion of how it will be. I do have a story about the strip on 42nd Street and I did see some pretty gritty stuff a few times out in front of CB’s. Hmmm. Maybe next time!

  2. lynda stanley says:

    I love your total recall of all those characters and performers, and since I was lurking around Washington Square at about that time too I wish I could remember more.. The only one that springs to mind is Kenny Gwynn, a kind of remarkable guitarist who played both in the park and at places like Kenny’s Castaway. If I remember correctly, he had a following among more well known musicians, but never really became well known outside of that area.. I have more memories of many hours spent nursing cappuccinos at Caffe Reggio( and an early caffeine habit) and watching the world go by on MacDougal– I loved that place!

    One of my favorite movies(shot in the mid-80’s) has always been “After Hours”–if you haven’t seen that you may like it because it really captures (a crazy night in) the old Soho and Village, when it was dark, spooky, cavernous… a real period piece!

    This is a great blog– please keep writing!

    • Milty Rose says:

      Thanks Lynda! I remember Kenny’s presence but I never heard him play. I have seen “After Hours”. It’s a classic! Soho for me was very uncharted territory in those days. I didn’t make it there until college.

  3. stephen says:

    Does anybody remember the name of the artist who sold prints of his paintings in WSP?
    One was a large print of compilation of 60’s rock artists.

    • Milty Rose says:

      Hey Stephen,

      Not only do I remember him, I write about him in the very post you’re replying to. Scroll down to Artist #5 in part about the artists I remember best.
      His name is Rico Fonseca.

      • stephen says:

        Thank you so much! I read this last night while I was half asleep ( and after a few beers. Ha!)
        Don’t know how I missed THAT.
        I loved reading your story it really captured the flavor of Washington Square Park in those days and brought me back to an amazing time.
        I will now re read while being fully awake.
        Stephen

  4. Unfortunate that come May 8th NYC will be enforcing a ban on performers in Washington Square Park http://nyunews.com/2013/05/01/performer/

  5. Whitegirl says:

    I think I saw Paul zoom, of zaloomiminations, performing on a corner in the village, early 80s. Anybody else?

  6. Whitegirl says:

    Also….wasn’t there a children of god cult house there?

    • Whitegirl says:

      For invited to a house party with them, very strange and scary….did that happen to anyone else?

    • Milty Rose says:

      I certainly remember plenty of religious people looking to show us the way. Mostly, I remember the Hare Krishna’s from the local Lower East Side temple looking to recruit. They were always inviting us to free vegetarian meals at their place. They held a fair in the park once a year. They might still.

  7. Nicki says:

    I remember Charlie Barnett, Tony Vera among others. It was a magical time which was just a bus ride away from the suburbs.

  8. Raymond says:

    Rico was out there on MacDougal last weekend!

  9. david holt says:

    Did anyone ever meet jaco pastorius during this time in Washington sq park.. he spent a great deal of time there in 85/86

    • Milty Rose says:

      I don’t think I was aware of Jaco or his legend until after his death. If our paths had crossed, he probably wouldn’t have been inclined to talk to a 12 year old. I don’t remember any exceptional bass players getting in on the jams. But it’s cool to think that he was there among those characters.

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