My 1967 summer in Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta apartment building was a revelation, but that old house was only a nostalgic island in a mundane commercial district. Eager to live in a truly historic neighborhood I moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and took a second floor apartment on West Tenth Street. Tucked between Bleecker and Hudson Streets I was happily immersed in another century. The only modern interloper was the Sixth Precinct Police Headquarters across the street. Our paths would eventually cross but more on that later.
My new life in America’s Bohemia was magical. Because I was still an unpublished novelist, I walked around in a daze, trying to grasp how many writers I had followed there. Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, James Agee (a distant Tennessee cousin) to name just a few. I figured if I couldn’t find inspiration in the Village I’d better pack my bags. As things played out, I didn’t have to look any further than my own back yard. The apartment building dated to the 1840s and was originally an inn with a grog shop on the ground floor and a second building in the back for the innkeeper and his family. Because of the nearby Hudson River the inn catered to seamen and continued to do so even after landfill shifted the river several blocks farther west in 1851.
The building super said there were several murders in the old inn. I don’t know how he knew that, but with the combustible combination of sailors, booze and 19th century lawlessness it was highly likely. Other tenants muttered about strange phenomena, but it was years before I joined their ranks. After a workman repaired leaks in my bathroom and thoroughly caulked and repainted the small windowless space, how could it possibly turn chilly in the dead of summer? Figuring the guy sealed in some restless spirit, I poked a tiny hole in the wall behind the basin and hoped for the best. The cold blast promptly vanished. Go figure.
The building hosted moviemakers along with sailors’ ghosts. In 1973, the rear courtyard became Frank Serpico’s apartment garden in the Al Pacino vehicle, Serpico. Also shot there was Men of Respect (1990) with Rod Steiger and John Turturro in a shaky mix of Macbeth and Goodfellas. While they set up a Mafia wedding reception, a rarely seen tenant from the back building ventured into the courtyard to watch. Weeks ago we had reported him as a drug dealer to the nearby police station, but his noisy business continued 24/7. It turned out his apartment was under surveillance and a trio of cops costumed as wedding guests were hoping he would show. Sure enough they busted him right in the middle of a take. The director got the whole thing on film while I watched from my upstairs window. Talk about life imitating art!
Over the years Greenwich Village supplied me with enough inspiration for a host of historical novels and I was lucky enough to sell seven while living there. One of them, First Families, was set in 18th century Australia and involved seafarers. As rewarding as all this was though, my coming years in New Orleans would be even more so.
Part 3 of a series on living with history.