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Full Moon Life Café Tuesday Night Poetry Readings and Zombies in Tompkins Square Park in the 1980s – Part 2

This is an excerpt from the up-coming memoir by Kathy Life, “How Life Began: A Story of Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in the East Village of New York City”

We didn’t sell much on poetry nights because everyone was focused on reading and listening and because writers, like artists, didn’t have much money to begin with. But the readings were good for us; they put the Cafe on the map. Our name got spread around word of mouth and the readings helped to build a reputation and to build the business.

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Frankie Lymon’s Nephew reciting poetry at Life Cafe around 1982

An Excerpt From Suburban Ambush by Robert Siegle:

Patrick McGrath recalls the importance of Life Cafe before it became, as he puts it, ‘deeply uppified,’ and our open mike poetry Tuesdays. He said it was through Life Cafe, for example, that Rose, Texier, and McGrath formed the friendship that led to their work together on Between C & D. ‘I just opened up to something,’ Catherine Texier says, ‘I felt it. There’s this sense that people are reading what you’re writing and you’re reading it aloud, and it creates an environment and gets you immediate feedback – and an impact in terms of stimulating us. We were there and part of a ferment.’”

Bar at Life Cafe around 1982

Bar at Life Cafe around 1982

At the real crazy readings, during the course of the night, I had to step outside to take a break and get a breath of fresh air, as it was so intense and smoky inside. One evening I escaped for a few moments just outside the door on Avenue B. The towering canopies of the American elm trees in Tompkins Square Park opposite us were lit from above. I looked up beyond them and saw a huge full moon early in its rise. That was when I picked up on a distinct sense of uneasiness in the streets. I looked around and saw there were more crazy people, drug addicts and drunks wandering around than usual and they were more animated. With a brief sense of relief, I realized none of them noticed me. But then I heard shouting and yelling followed by loud howling from deep within the Park. It was like a zombie movie in our backyard. It was primeval and menacing.

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Life Cafe on Avenue B Side around 1982

I moved closer to the Café door. So, okay, I said to myself – which is worse; stay out here and maybe get attacked and dragged into the park by a pack of blood crazed werewolf zombies, or go back inside and into the cozy reality of our known craziness? Sounds a silly choice to have to make, like a joke I know, only it wasn’t.

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John Farris at Life Cafe around 1982 before he ran the Tuesday Night Poetry Readings

The realization hit me; there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Even packing it in for the night and going “home” meant walking through the crowd in the Cafe to get to the back where we lived. Once there I’d be pretty much trapped by the noise and the energy out front. I felt like I was between two dark and crazy worlds and the only place to go was to fall through the dark vault that I felt was opening up beneath me. I shivered, and shook the thought out of my head. “Get a grip girl and get back in there!” I told myself. I was needed in the Cafe to manage the floor. I focused on that, took a final deep breath and dove back into the mad melee. I think that was a deciding moment in my life; no matter how crazy it got, I wasn’t going to give up. This was my place, and my place was here, no matter what.

Life Cafe Regulars outside on E. 10th St. & Ave. B

Life Cafe Regulars outside on E. 10th St. & Ave. B

Tune in for Part 3 of  Zombies and Poets of the 1980s Lower East Side, coming soon


Full Moon Life Café Poetry Readings and Zombies in Tompkins Square Park in the 1980s

This is an excerpt from the up-coming memoir by Kathy Life, “How Life Began: A Story of Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in the East Village of New York City”

David Life used the Café as a stage to present his ideas, which were taking on a bizarre ilk. On to the walls in eccentric and fantastical combinations, he installed discarded objects from the streets: toys, wooden masks and broken trophies. It was like the street was coming inside. One item was a WWII bomb to which he screwed a wooden laughing Buddha on the end. He began showing art by the locals, good and be locals, and created his own art, oftentimes painting right onto the building. His mythic cartoon-like animals stared down at you with lashing tongues and bulging eyes daring you to come in.

Founds Objects turned to Art Installation on Walls of Life Cafe East Village NYC

Founds Objects turned to Art Installation on Walls of Life Cafe East Village NYC

In 1982, the SSI guys living off of disability were the first to hang out like semi-permanent human fixtures. Ira Bruckner, a poet who lived a couple of doors down, occasionally came in for coffee.

He was an argumentative bugger, a rude hot wire, and a loose nut. One quiet afternoon when the usual guys were inside with their coffees and chess boards he walked in front of the Café, peered through the open arched window from where we sold ice cream, yelled some obscenities, then hurled the table fan sitting on the windowsill into the middle of the Café, supposedly at someone, who, no one knew. As tolerant as David was, that was the last straw. David banned Ira from Life for life.Life Cafe circa 1985

I thought Ira wasn’t really crazy, because he had these long moods of intelligence and empathy. For instance, before the fan incident, he did something constructive. In a challenging tone he said, “David, why don’t you have poetry readings here?” “Okay, Ira. Why don’t you organize them?” He set up the Life Cafe Tuesday Night Poetry Readings.

Writers came to read and vent their considerable angst. But Ira was too unpredictable and then there was the fan-throwing incident. So Dave took a chance and invited John Farris to take over, a good friend but another loose canon. Fortunately, he very ably steered his anger and intolerances toward society organizing the readings and reading his own work. He was good for Life. He knew everyone who was anyone in the literary world in and around the neighborhood.

The readings were free and open. All you had to do was sign up (this was before “open mike” got the name) and, unfortunately, anyone did. Before each reading, people gathered around the tables decorated with collages from our vintage Life Magazine collection and ordered coffees and something cheap to nibble on, much to my chagrin. I was always trying to figure out how to get them to spend more money so I could pay the rent and utility bills. To those we knew we sold shots of Puerto Rica rum in their coffee for an extra buck. 2539

Thick cigarette smoke accented with marijuana hung in the room like smoke before the fire. Life Cafe readings were wild. There was often a heckler in the audience, and one, a woman with wild hair, was potentially dangerous. When she yelled, everyone in the house shifted nervously. Occasionally a brave poet would rant back if that night’s heckler wasn’t too threatening; it was a cacophony of verbal anarchy, a word dart competition and the poet was the dartboard.

During full moons the streets tended to be more rowdy than usual and the lunacy spilled off the street and into the Café.

Those were the toughest nights. I had to work the floor during those readings because the Café was packed and we needed to keep a closer watch over the crowd, which couldn’t be done from behind the counter where Dave was. He was too busy making espressos and small change.

Tune in for more Zombies and Poets of the 1980s Lower East Side, coming soon.


Life Cafe E. Village opens Thursday Sept. 1, 10 am

Let the shutters up and let the light in. Come on by and grab a delicious burger and a beer and gather with your neighbors. It’s gonna be a beautiful weekend on the sidewalk cafe. Watch the never-ending circus around Life — muscle men and boxing matches in Tompkins Square Park, dogs in clothes, we just don’t know what will come by next. Life is sharper on a corner.