From the Archives: I Cover the Waterfront…How the Other Half Lives

2010 March 2
by Lex Grey

[Editor’s note–Internationally renowned blues chanteuse Lex Grey, one of Williamsburg’s original “urban pioneers,” left the neighborhood several years ago for the Hudson Valley. The following was originally published in July 2001.]

There comes a time when the things that drew you to a place begin to disappear. They become barstool legends and urban folklore. Tall tales for late nights and things to tell (or not tell) my children—even though I don’t have any. Some names and situations have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

When I first came to Williamsburg it was snowing. Entertaining a friend from out of town, we passed a wintry New York evening under the twinkling lights of an East Village Indian restaurant, drinking wine and burning our lips on vindaloo…yet all that kept twinkling in my mind and burning on my lips was the thought of this beautiful performance artist I’d just met and her eccentric charms…and her party just over the Williamsburg Bridge. Ah, Brooklyn…the final frontier. Enticing my friend and his rental car to accompany me on this adventure was not difficult, since he had no idea what he was getting into and neither did I. Watching him with his not-yet-faded tropical tan scraping the rapidly accumulating snow off the windshield, a strange rush came over my entire body. I somehow knew I was leaving the East Village, college, and my life as I knew it, never to look back.

The bridge was nearly invisible in the post-midnight blizzard. The roadway, slippery and unstable, felt like it was falling apart beneath the wheels. Snow cascaded above and a darkened desolate waterfront unfolded before us, snowy white tufts draping over crumbling piers and burnt-out buildings. Thoughts were racing like snow in a streetlight—paranoia tinged with titillation…I kept thinking “the bridge is crumbling — I’m never going to leave.” Both things turned out to be true. When I cracked open the car window, in crept the sweet brine of a winter river and the faint smell of wood burning.

I was startled out of the fantasy when a stranger came out of nowhere and put his hand into the window I had just opened. Before I could react, he said in broken English, “Please, miss, take the kitty,” and out of his overcoat came a tiny black kitten that he shoved through the window, as he again abruptly said “please” and disappeared into the blizzard.

The loft, the woman I was visiting that fateful evening, and the cat, would all become mine for a short and tumultuous time, a vivid life lesson in being careful what you wish for—but those scars disappeared quickly. I was seduced by the Burg’s brand of romantic danger —taken in by the spell—the redbrick buildings glowing in the afternoon sun—the days of innocence and wildness. We were drawn here because it was open and untamed and so were we.

Whatever happened to the Vodka Man? On a hungover Sunday morning you’d arrive on the corner of Berry and North 7th still awake from the night before, and if you had any money left you’d give it to the little old man in the frayed and ill-fitting suit. He’d open his large, tartan-plaid suitcase, and produce a bottle of cheap vodka, usually Alexi or Popov. “Ten” was all he would say, and he’d smile and nod enthusiastically as he took your money. His ears and nose resembled florets of cauliflower, and his smiling face was red as a beet, but if you had a guitar case or a hard luck story you could sometimes talk him down to six. Never five. Once a passing patrol car slowed down to investigate the crowd that had suddenly formed on this normally desolate corner. He quickly zipped up his suitcase and sat on it, putting his head in his craggy hands, looking like someone’s grandfather left at a train station. One Sunday he just stopped showing up. I never saw him again.

Juanita worked the corner of Metropolitan and Wythe. If you were crossing her path, you had better not loiter for a second ‘cause that was her corner. She would tell you that immediately, and then demand to know who you were and what you were doing. After getting interrogated by her for a few days, she realized I was not her competition. She had such a natural grace about her, a courageous street-beauty that made it easy to see a soul behind those crack and dope eyes. She was a real-life superhero, so matter-of-fact, so unfazed by her own life, never looking sorry or sad or vulnerable—a post-apocalyptic painted princess asking me for my sunglasses because she dropped hers in someone’s car.

The waterfront working girls came and went—at a point there were twenty or thirty along Kent and Wythe from Southside to North—I watched them fade like cheap flowers around her. Juanita was the queen. One day I saw her looking up from applying lipstick in the cracked side-mirror of a parked van and she summoned me over. “Hey, Madonna,” she said, smiling. She knew my name, but seemed to get a big kick out of calling me Madonna. “Where can I get some clothes like yours?” From then on I’d always bring her stuff I wasn’t wearing anymore. On an especially cold winter afternoon I brought her a used white fur jacket that I bought at Domsey’s for three bucks. She jumped up and down like a little girl and hugged me. “Madonna, you always bring me luck…and nice presents.”

Sometimes I would ride by on my bike and see her in one of my outcast outfits, climbing into a truck or getting out of a car wearing my old sunglasses. This thrilled me more than disturbed me until she went missing. No one seemed to notice or care. Soon there was another girl on her corner. Later I heard that Juanita was found in a Lower East Side dumpster, bound and strangled, wrapped in a white fur jacket.

These were the days of unrestricted East River access. An accidental riverfront park had sort of cropped up between the squatted buildings, stripped and torched cars and very unusual garbage that dotted the landscape west of Kent Avenue. This was the last stop for factory seconds. It was not uncommon to see hundreds of incomplete, lopsided ladies’ purses strewn about, or piles of plastic googly eyes, punctuated by an occasional defunct household appliance or dead animal in a beyond-your-wildest maggot nightmare state of decomposition.

Charles lived on the waterfront in the remains of the flour terminal. His view of Manhattan was impeccable, as was his collection of mystery vintage drugs from the VA hospital. Every time I would pop in he’d tell me in his soft and soothing voice that he’d been expecting me. We’d read through the Physician’s Desk Reference that he kept out like a coffee table book, trying to determine exactly what was in those 1950s and ‘60s style medicine bottles stacked high and deep in a storage locker. I remember trying to decipher the faded and ominous warning labels….”danger — this drug may have a hypnotic effect”….”or may cause psychosis, particularly in children…”

It was remarkably easy to while away winter afternoons drinking tea steeped over a Sterno, sitting in Charles’ “den,” which was a graffiti-covered square terra cotta block room with the ceiling burned away, flanked by a bank of broken toilets, a cherry tree on one side and the river on the other. There was a makeshift table covered in found objects illuminated by candles. Trinkets, Mardi Gras beads, doll heads, keychains, broken costume jewelry, ashtrays—I was never sure if it was solely his creation, or some sort of offering table for passersby. Sometimes when I stopped in and Charles wasn’t there, I’d sit awhile, then leave something on the table. The charred rafters against the sky, the gnarled glassless panes framing a vista better than any postcard, and the cherry tree are all gone now, bulldozed and fenced into a sterile limbo. Rumor has it that Charles moved into a brownstone in Park Slope with a beautiful young girl he’d met on the waterfront. I guess he was having difficulty making the leap to conventional living with its walls and doors and such. I last heard he’d set up his furniture in their backyard.

Time certainly seemed to move at a different rate here. Leaving Manhattan, crossing the then-dilapidated pedestrian walkway of the Willy B where the brittle shingles fell away under your feet, the deceleration would begin. You were leaving the land of amenities and entering the land of myth and legend. Of course, you had to get across the mighty span first. In addition to the throngs of shady individuals that called the bridge home, bands of young marauders would string piano wire across the barely-lit walkway in an attempt to ensnare unwary bicyclists. It was also remarkably easy to climb the tower. The railing surrounding the walkway was ornate in that industrial revolution sort of way, a semi-script WB that interlocked in a lattice of rusty bars and rivets. Where this met the base of the tower there was a treacherous two-foot gap, but a confident step later, I found myself shaking the rusty door that led to the zig-zagging stairs. I was ascending the spiraling cage to the top. With each gust of wind I was sure I was going to plunge to my death. The zig-zagging of the open stairwell got tighter, the stairs seemed to have an unnatural give, and I was gripped with the sensation that the bridge was precariously swaying. Still, convinced that I was the first person ever to do this, the proverbial flag had to be planted. Inches from my goal, I realized just how wrong I was about being the first one in the tower. The stench of excrement slapped me across the face as I stepped into Armageddon’s penthouse, covered in newspapers and condoms, syringes and empty bottles—a honeymoon suite for the disenfranchised. Brooklyn and Manhattan lay sprawling in the twilight like two lovers with nothing in common, like the past and the future separated by swirling black water. Trouble was, there was no way to determine which was which.

— Summer 2001

Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers are entering their 15th year as a band; for more information and upcoming gigs see

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