Maybe it's that fat old drag queen in the blond wig and sequins swinging a blue-suede phallus. Or the orange-haired singer for Uncle Jimmy's Dirty Basement who describes himself as Ed Sullivan if Ed had been an agoraphobic, somewhat delusional 35-year-old confined to a basement in Indiana.
Or maybe it's the young temptress who sways to and fro in Tompkins Square Park before stripping butt naked. For a few bizarro-yet-sweetly-nostalgic days this past week, the East Village and Alphabet City raised their graying head and howled.
It was the third annual Howl! Festival, a cacophonous celebration of all that's alternative and odd. Puerto Rican graffiti artists laid down their tags on canvasses stretched around Tompkins Square Park; Zero Boy offered comic sound raps; drag queens trooped to Wigstock; and Willie Villegas Y Entre Amigos cooked the best salsa this side of San Juan.
Allen Ginsberg, whose epic poem gave its name to the festival, once described the East Village with a kind of poetic reportage:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for a fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."
To which the latte generation might respond: Whatever.
Where's the Starbucks?
That's the big fat thought cloud that loomed over this particular exercise in brilliant excess: Was this just a psychedelic memory lane? Just last week, the Village Voice declared the bohemian West Village as dead as that T. Rex at the American Museum of Natural History. When there's a German beer garden on Avenue A and developers retail $1.15 million Viking-stoved, Thai-bamboo-floored condos with really excellent views of the Jacob Riis projects, can the East Village avant-garde still be avant?
Is this a celebration of what is, or what was?
"We've seen it's possible to take neighborhoods and turn them into theme parks," said Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, who recently hosted the American debut of the poet laureate of Yemen and led a reading of Ginsberg's "Howl" in Tompkins Square on Friday night.
"We're saying, 'No thanks, we'll hang on to our own neighborhood.' "
Penny Arcade, a fifty-something blond performance artist who cavorted with Andy Warhol, is more sardonic. She's been at too many dinners where conversations begin with the words: Do you know how much the co-op next door sold for!?
"This festival is 'We who are about to die salute you, you [expletive],' " she said. "Everyone thinks they are living alternative lives, but they are taking all their cues from the mainstream.
"A lot of us feel invisible now," she added. "As you get older, you get out of context."
"Who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music, who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts . . . who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish."
-- Ginsberg's "Howl"
For a century, waves of Italian and Jewish, Puerto Rican and Ukrainian immigration swept over the dense tenements of the East Village -- which sits south of 14th Street and east of Third Avenue in Manhattan. Its streets are narrow, the stairways and rooms claustrophobic. Red-brick housing developments rise to the east. Only the tidal straits of the East River offer relief from foul air.
The anarchist Emma Goldman and assorted socialists and commies and Trotskyites settled here. No one pretended to get along. Then the beatnik poets, yippies and punks tumbled in. Artists and writers slept on mattresses in the hollowed bellies of vacant tenements. The occasional homicidal smack and crack gangs with their knives and .45s acted as prophylactics, keeping out the bourgeoisie and giving this new culture time to flower.
"The punks would beat up the gays, but the Puerto Ricans would kick the punks' " butts, said Zero Boy, who has lived near Avenue A for two decades. "It was warped, but if you understood the rules, it worked."
It was a consciously ill-mannered scene, with lots of half-digested anarchist politics. The most successful artists often had a hint of P.T. Barnum in their souls, and those such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons marched out to conquer the art world.
"We don't have any illusion that it was anything but the bad old days," said Phil Hartman, whose brainchild is the Howl! Festival. "It's great that it's safer, I don't deny that. But as with everything, we pay a price."
Those who stayed, who did not flee to Peekskill or to the graffiti galleries of the South Bronx or give up the ghost altogether and go into advertising, mastered the survival arts. For Bob Rosenthal, a poet and tender of the Ginsberg flame, salvation was a rent-controlled apartment. For Chino Garcia, a gray-bearded radical who came of age in the 1960s, it was CHARAS, a cultural and education center that has given birth to dozens of young Puerto Rican comics and actors.
Hartman, 50, moved here three decades ago to write scripts about a punk-rock detective. Now he's a bohemian capitalist, with a successful string of pizza parlors and a movie theater devoted to the cinematically weird and his Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, where young artists perform nightly.
"I was having ice cream on a stoop on Avenue B and 2nd Street with my daughters," Hartman recalled. "I realized we were staring at a chain drugstore in the lobby of a luxury building. I realized that my kids were going to grow up in a neighborhood that was going to resemble every other neighborhood unless I did something.
"We needed to re-stake our claim."
So for one week there's that glorious howl, with poets and performance artists and jazz musicians holding court in dozens of tiny clubs and in Tompkins Square Park. Yet how to retain that "gleam of supernatural ecstasy" -- as Ginsberg put it -- when a one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,000 a month? Greg Fuchs, a poet, spent weeks reaching out to the East Village diaspora -- the artists who can no longer afford to live there -- for this festival.
"The developers are very wise to us, and as a result, some of my favorite artists don't live here anymore," said Fuchs, who himself lives in Brooklyn. "All the squares have moved downtown. Maybe we'll have to move to the suburbs.
"But we're not there yet."