Life Cafe Blog
“TRACKS” to the Avenue B Toilet
Avenue B Bathroom January 1985

Avenue B Bathroom January 1985

Here are some photos of two more items found in storage. These came from the Avenue B restroom of Life Cafe in the East Village. One is a metal mirror that I hung and the other is a piece hung by David Life, TRACKS. Both became full of grafitti over time. This was the last mirror I hung in that bathroom, because all the others got stolen. I guess it was just too heavy. I wrote about that bathroom in my (as yet to be published) memoir “How Life Began”. An excerpt from the book about the goings on around that toilet is included here. Enjoy, if you can. Those were really rough times and that bathroom represented the worst of it.

toilet-mirror

Metal mirror covered in graffiti that hung for years in Life Cafe Avenue B bathroom

We learned the facts of Lower East Side life fast. We learned how to distinguish a real troublemaker from a pest, what they looked like and how they acted. We learned how to diffuse a potentially menacing situation and to deal with the perpetrators. With Billy’s backup and help from our regulars, we gained more confidence each time a situation flew in our faces – and there were many. But it was always scary. The trick, though, was to not act scared.

Detail of graffiti on mirror from Life Cafe Avenue B toilet

Detail of graffiti on mirror from Life Cafe Avenue B toilet

Homeless people came in to use our restroom and to bathe. We didn’t like them doing that. They left a wet mess and a bad smell over everything. To stop this we removed the locks from the restroom doors to eliminate the sense of a secure, private space. That didn’t work, and it made our customers uncomfortable. And some got mad.

Particularly Gerome Ragni, a co-author of HAIR, the American tribal love-rock musical of the 1960s. He and his partner, James Rado, who became lunch regulars around this time, were good-looking, animated, friendly and talkative. They told me they were currently working on a new musical called “Sun” and were hoping to collaborate with Paul McCartney and use some of his music for it. Gerry was quite particular to order very healthy food. One day when they were having their usual lunch, I needed to use the toilet. I opened the door to the Avenue B bathroom and found myself looking at Gerry’s very cute bum. He threw me a nasty glance over his shoulder along with a few choice words. You wouldn’t think a creator of HAIR would be so upset about someone seeing his naked bum.

So, we installed locks to get in, giving the staff control of the key and who got access to the toilet. That worked to an extent, but being bathroom sentry was the least favorite job in the café especially because it was often impossible to tell the junkies and the homeless from our real customers, some of who were junkies. Try as we might, we just couldn’t keep all the heroin addicts and homeless out.

Railroad crossing tracks sign remind of track marks on the arms of heroin users

Railroad crossing tracks sign remind of track marks on the arms of heroin users

It was an education and an insight into a hellish world; the type of person who used heroin turned out to be surprising. Not all junkies live rough and look like Bowery bums. Some were well dressed and lived uptown. Still, our bottom line was, no matter who they were, we didn’t want junkies doing their nasty business on our premises, nor did we want the responsibility of dealing with an overdose or a death. Every now and then it happened. We could tell from the blood splattered on the walls. Unfortunately, we did have to call the police to haul a body or two out.

tracks-k

In his typical style, to verify and defy the reality of the situation, David hung a piece from his antique and junk collection from Michigan on one of the walls of the Avenue B toilet. It was one section of two making up an “X”, a typical railroad crossing sign, “TRACKS” that he originally installed in the dining room. Railroad tracks, the ones he used to like to trek on in Lansing, Michigan, the ones he dragged me along after we began dating because I hadn’t developed the stamina to endure long walks and hiking with him yet. Track marks, the pink lines and red dots left from needle injections on the arms of heroin users. After hanging on that toilet wall for years, its mocking message went mostly unnoticed. Its taunting presence didn’t seem to spark any bit of consciousness, awareness, or irony in those bathroom occupants. I thought it was an apt reminder of our sad everyday reality.

Detail of graffiti from Mirror from Life Cafe Avenue B Toilet

Detail of graffiti from Mirror from Life Cafe Avenue B Toilet

A weapon can help build confidence and show intent. Nervous and fed up at the same time over the toilet problem, Dave decided to keep a baseball bat behind the counter as a device to scare junkies out of our bathroom. When the staff realized the toilet was occupied for a particularly long period of time, they’d tell Dave. With great determination, he would march up to the door, pound on it and yell out, “Get out of there! We don’t allow junkies in here. Get out – NOW!” As disgusting as the task was, I think deep down, if just a little bit, Dave liked making a scene out of it. Of course, whenever this happened everyone in the café watched in anticipation of a big row, although the point was only to humiliate the person inside. But public humiliation only worked to a point. We usually got the occupant to leave, but it did little to discourage more junkies from returning. These were desperate people who needed their fix, no matter what.

"Think Pink" Graffiti on TRACKS sign in Life Cafe Avenue B Toilet

“Think Pink” Graffiti on TRACKS sign in Life Cafe Avenue B Toilet

One quiet afternoon I noticed that a customer had been waiting a long while to use the restroom, and she was obviously getting desperate. Dave wasn’t around, so, with great consternation, I did what he always did, what had to be done. I grabbed the bat, went over and knocked loudly on the door and yelled to whoever was inside to open the door and get out. A female voice from within began shouting angrily at me, and she refused to come out. Knowing you couldn’t lock the door from inside, I tried opening it but couldn’t. I could feel the resistance of her body near the bottom of the door; she had braced herself with her back against the door and her legs against the wall.

Details from TRACKS sign that hung in Life Cafe Avenue B bathroom

Details from TRACKS sign that hung in Life Cafe Avenue B bathroom

That was it. I wasn’t about to have a Junkie’s Last Stand in my bathroom. Who the hell did she think she was? She’s mad at me? This was my place, my dream. I called 911 and thank God for once the cops quickly came. I’ll give them credit; they patiently talked to her until the message finally got through that she might be spending the rest of the day and the night in another small room. She finally calmed down and agreed to come out. When the door slowly opened I began to feel a sense of relief. She knew she was beaten in one respect. But as for me, in retaliation, on her way out and in the arms of the cops, in one last lash out she bashed the bathroom door with a fierce kick putting a huge hole in it. My relief faded and my heart sank. As the police got her under control and led her away, I dejectedly stared at the damage and wondered anxiously where I was going to find the money to replace that door. And although I did not turn to watch where the police escorted her, I felt the intense energy of her presence slip out of the café and considered how, that despondent desperate stranger, possessed with an obsessive craving for drugs, came to look for and didn’t find solace in a cramped, lonely Alphabet City bathroom.

Graffiti detail on TRACKS sign in Life Cafe Avenue B bathroom

Graffiti detail on TRACKS sign in Life Cafe Avenue B bathroom