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.”
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.
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.