Fiction. Just as Soylent Green is people, so THE CHINTZ AGE is now. Everything is cheaper and chintzier than in the past, from consumer products to culture itself. Our great cities, and, in particular, New York, are being transformed as we speak, as rising rents squeeze out the artists and bohemians who honed and burnished the city's glittering cutting edge. So should we look backward in teary-eyed nostalgia for the glorious past, or grit our teeth and move forward, accepting the inevitability of change in order to carve out a place for ourselves in this Brave New New York? This book of gritty urban fairy tales represents a heartfelt prayer for the future of the arts in New York, as well as a blueprint for a moral and spiritual resistance to the forces of cultural philistinism.
In seven stories and a novella, Ed Hamilton takes on this clash of cultures between the old and the new, as his characters are forced to confront their own obsolescence in the face of this rapidly surging capitalist juggernaut. Ranging over the whole panorama of New York neighborhoods—from the East Village to Hell's Kitchen, and from the Bowery to Washington Heights—Hamilton weaves a spellbinding web of urban mythology. Punks, hippies, beatniks, squatters, junkies, derelicts, and anarchists—the entire pantheon of urban demigods—gambol through a grungy subterranean Elysium of dive bars, cheap diners, flophouses, and shooting galleries, searching for meaning and a place to make their stand.
|Publisher:||Cervena Barva Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Ed Hamilton is the author of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York's Rebel Mecca (Da Capo, 2007). His fiction has appeared in dozens of small journals, including Limestone, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, SoMa Literary Review, Exquisite Corpse, Bohemia, Omphalos, and in translation in the Czech Republic's Host. His non-fiction has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Huffington Post, and Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog. Ed lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Chintz Age
Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York
By Ed Hamilton
Sagging Meniscus PressCopyright © 2015 Ed Hamilton
All rights reserved.
FAT HIPPIE BOOKS
Over a pitcher of beer in the bar at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Greg Webster examined Brian Gilbert's luggage, two pieces of which were remarkable. "What's the guitar for?" he asked as Brian sat down at the small table. Greg himself had arrived at the bar first and ordered the pitcher.
"Oh, are you drinking now?" Brian asked in turn, vaguely suspicious. Just as Greg knew that Brian didn't play the guitar, so Brian knew that Greg didn't drink anymore.
Greg answered Brian's question simply by taking another swig of beer. Glancing around the nearly empty bar to make sure no one was looking, Brian set the guitar case in his lap and opened it to reveal a gleaming aluminum sword: fantastic, futuristic, with a jewel-encrusted hilt and jagged barbs climbing up one side of the faux-Celtic-etched blade. He explained the guitar case: "I was worried that they wouldn't let me on the bus with a sword."
"You know, that sword is dysfunctional," Greg remarked.
"I think you've told me that before," Brian replied, snapping the case shut.
"Those barbs might look cool," Greg nevertheless went on to explain, "but they would just get stuck in a guy's guts if you ever stabbed anyone with it."
As Greg knew, the sword was the trademark prop of Brian's Books of Blut fantasy book series, a silver sword for decapitating vampires — thus in effect obviating the need for stabbing. Brian didn't bother reiterating this point, as, in any event, it still didn't explain the barbs. Instead, unbidden, he swung his second piece of unusual luggage, a tall, narrow hatbox, onto the table and opened it. Removing the helmet to match the sword, he smilingly placed it upon his head. The helmet was made of a metallic-looking plastic, as an actual metal helmet would have been too heavy to wear around comfortably, not to mention too costly for his publisher's limited promotional budget to bear.
"You look ridiculous," Greg, who had not seen the helmet before, said. "Are you really gonna wear that thing?"
"Just for when I make my entrance to the reading, then I'll take it off."
"Well, if you wear that shit around me I'm gonna pretend I don't know you."
Brian was making a tour of several book fairs and independent bookstores across the country, and Greg, a writer himself and deeply envious of Brian's tiny measure of renown, was tagging along for the ride. Though he considered it a silly reason for a trip, nevertheless, Greg thought excitedly as they boarded the bus in the dreary, smoggy garage, they were ON THE ROAD. It was a dream they both shared: to hit the road, drinking, screwing, fighting, and writing about their exploits. Both men had fallen prey to the Beat mythology, Greg in his college years more than twenty-five years before, and Brian soon after he came to work at the bookstore a mere ten years ago, straight out of college himself, when Greg — his chief influence in this obsession — had already been in business for almost seven years.
* * *
The bookstore where they both worked, Greg as owner and manager and Brian as "night manager," would most likely, barring unforeseen circumstances, be forced to close very soon. This put a damper on their excursion. But they had planned the trip a long time beforehand, and had worked it out with the other three, part time, employees of the bookstore, who were happy to have the extra hours. Business was always slow in the summer anyway, and what the hell, it looked like it was now or never. Who knew where they'd be working, or living, this time next year.
Greg had started his shop, the (at-the-time) aptly named Fat Hippie Books, in the mid-eighties on a burnedout block of New York's East Village. The shop was around the corner from the famous punk venue CBGB and the former office of the Yipster Times. Down the block was the Hell's Angel's clubhouse. When he moved in, the store was right across the street from a rubble-strewn lot where junkies shot up. Now, in 2004, there was a brand new condo building there. The neighborhood had gentrified, but the bookstore remained the same: aged tomes spilling off the sagging wooden shelves onto unstable piles rising up from the creaking floor. And when the door popped open with a clatter of bells, plate glass, old boards and rusty hinges, a gust of wind might set the dust to swirling, some of the same dust maybe as back in the eighties, and patrons would catch a whiff of that unmistakable used bookstore smell. And these patrons, each of that furtive, clandestine race who frequent such places, would feel that familiar tingle of recognition deep in their brain stems that told them instinctively what this place was about: the preservation of knowledge, the suspension of time.
Which is a bit ironic, for, as the name would suggest, the shop was dedicated to such once-cutting-edge movements as hippie, Beat, and punk literature, and to the literature of the counterculture in general. Ensconced among these unlikely relics, and less well preserved than many, was Greg himself. As the neighborhood improved, and the bookstore stayed the same, so Greg declined: his long blond hair, once a heavy flag of pride and resistance, had with age become wispy, balding on top, mostly gray. Though he knew it would look better cut short, out of habit and a sense of duty to the image of the store he still kept it long, sometimes wearing a bandana tied on the top.
There was nothing much he could do about his weight: Greg had become slim due to gallbladder surgery a few years back, and though he looked and felt healthier than he had before the procedure, he couldn't help but see himself as a pale shell of the portly, wisecracking, young writer who founded the shop almost twenty years before. Every day Greg waited for someone to burst through the door and ask: "Where the hell is the fat hippie?" and was slightly amazed that it hasn't happened yet. Oh well, at least he was taller than average, so he still had a commanding presence; and the name of the shop was, of course, intended to be rather tongue-in-cheek anyway. On the day of the bus trip, he wore jeans and a black jacket that was a couple sizes too big for him. Though he usually wore tshirts to sit around the bookshop, that day he had on a white collar shirt and a string tie with a silver arrowhead clasp. He didn't need the bandana because he wore a brand new, black leather cowboy hat.
In the late afternoon and evening, sitting behind his huge wooden desk with his feet propped up, Greg held court. For the bookshop was a neighborhood hangout, and a ragtag crew of East Village misfits — dropouts and hipsters, Hispanic slam poets, long-haired psychedelic street artists and grungy squatters and activists, authors of self-published tomes, guys who wrote poems on the sidewalk in chalk, lawyers and stockbrokers who hated their jobs, once in awhile a stray Hell's Angel — would drop by throughout the day to sit on stools and milk crates and talk to Greg, or, more accurately, listen to Greg as he held forth on literature, the counterculture, and life in general. Though decidedly a masculine environment, at least once a week the bookstore held a poetry/literary reading of some sort, and then the Bohemians of the fair sex turned out in force. Though Greg had his groupies, many of the young women these days wore black accented with purple or red, dyed their hair to match, sported tattoos, piercings and silver jewelry, and read erotic poetry with S&M and vampire themes. They were there, for the most part, because of Brian.
Among Greg's dwindling female fan base had been his wife, Cheryl, a playwright working a day job at an ad agency, who used to run one of the reading series, setting out the wine and introducing the evenings' readers. They had been divorced for a little over two years. Now the series was run by a woman named Heather, a scatterbrained Parks Department worker with a round face and big, chunky, features, and a frizzy mane of dark hair. She liked mysteries, and wrote — betraying her origins in Wyoming — cowboy poetry, thankfully somewhat ironic, and everybody could see that she was in love with Greg. For Greg, Heather was a welcome, reassuring contrast to his skinny, high-strung ex-wife, and when she walked she had a sexy way of swinging her big, shapely hips. Where the wife was uptight and demanding, Heather seemed both more carefree and more nurturing. On the other hand, Heather was close to his own age, not like the girls he was generally attracted to — like all men, he believed, were attracted to — the young, skinny ones. In addition, due to her wacky personality, lack of fashion sense, and of course the cowboy poetry, Heather was the butt of many a joke around the place.
It would be easy enough to make fun of Greg, too, since to some he was an insufferable, blustering know-it-all. However, his literary expertise was real, especially as related to Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady, and the rest of the Beats, as well as to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their traveling hippie-gypsy culture. He had read everything remotely connected with the Beats and knew details of the lives of even the minor ones, including the real identities of almost everybody that Kerouac, his idol, had ever mentioned in his books. He took reasoned exception with the various published accounts and had theories about the characters that no one had been able to identify; this provided a topic of ongoing argument at the bookshop. One of his great regrets was that he had never met the King of the Beats, though he would have been only five when Kerouac died. He had met William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom had come into the shop, one time each, in the early nineties. Burroughs had stayed only briefly as Greg, himself uncharacteristically dumbstruck in the presence of the great man, watched him leave without a word and without buying anything. Ginsberg had come in looking for some obscure title by Spengler, had lingered to discuss Zen for perhaps five minutes, and had walked out with a copy of Iacocca, of all things. And the more obscure Beat writer and Times Square hustler, Herbert Huncke, a well known character in the East Village of the eighties, had liked to borrow books and money from Greg — sometimes returning the books, never the money.
Greg himself was a published writer. Right after he got out of college he had had several stories accepted by a small literary journal, showing great promise and making him a sort of minor literary celebrity among people who had never published anything anywhere. He used to keep copies of these journals in the shop's display case with the rare books, next to the first edition of On the Road and the signed copy of Naked Lunch, but he stopped doing that several years before, sensing from overheard remarks that this practice was becoming something of a joke. (Once in awhile one of his buddies would put somebody up to trying to buy these publications, as a gag. Of course they were not for sale.) Greg had written one novel, The Summer of Our Benzedrine Inhalers, the manuscript of which he stored in a file cabinet behind his desk, and had been at work on another for the last ten years. Or maybe he wasn't really working on it anymore; though there was never a real stopping point, when the weeks of not taking up the pen stretched into months and years, at some point it became difficult to tell.
Also, at some indefinite juncture, it had become less about the writing and more about the life, the Bohemian ideal of the East Village. The purpose of the bookstore had been to make a living and still have time to write. But somehow it hadn't worked out that way. There was always something to do around the store — shelving or pricing books, sweeping up, feeding the moody gray cat who scratched old ladies when they tried to pet him, chasing off bums, occasionally even waiting on customers — and in the afternoons his friends trickled in. Over and above the writing, Greg thought of himself as a rebel, as someone who had given up the security and material comfort of the suburbs in order to chase something more meaningful. And whether or not he ever attained it, that nebulous goal, it was the pursuit that meant the most; and that, he firmly believed, set him above the run of the mill. Even if he didn't have much money in this city of fabulous, ostentatious wealth, and even if he had alienated his wife, ultimately driving her away, at least he hadn't sold out. It was better to give it your best shot, after all, than never to know if you could have made it or not. As part of a long line of Bohemians, going back to Thomas Wolfe, Jack London, and further, to Rimbaud and Verlaine, Greg felt that he was part of a strange and beautiful tradition that had persisted down through the generations. Bourgeois standards of success or failure in the literary realm were secondary; although, on the other hand, because his ambition was as outsized as his personality, Greg had always assumed that he was going to be among the select few who actually made it, who succeeded against the odds.
* * *
A week prior to the bus trip, on a quiet evening when Brian had gone home early and there were no events and nobody much had shown up to hang out, Greg was closing up the shop. In the melancholy, rose window glow of the early summer twilight, he heaved a black bag of trash across the sidewalk onto a heap of similar bags at the curb. Then, as he pulled down the metal grate on the storefront of the brownstone tenement building, he noticed his new landlord on the sidewalk down near the end of the building, idly kicking at some blue ceramic tiles that an artist called Jim the Mosaic Man had affixed to the base of a light post a decade or more ago. Greg snapped the lock in place on the graffiti-gilded grate, then went out onto the sidewalk just as the landlord had caught sight of him and walked up:
"Hey, Big Greg! How's my favorite book man coming along?" Ted Foster said, extending his hand for a shake.
"Great," Greg said, grasping the hand. "How's my favorite landlord?" Why didn't he just come into the store? Greg wondered, tensing up suspiciously. In his paranoid way, Greg speculated that perhaps the man had been reluctant to confront him in his position of power behind the big desk, preferring instead to catch him off guard on more neutral ground.
Though there may have been something to this — after all, Greg often had friends in the shop, a posse of scruffy intellectual homeboys around whom Foster felt slightly uncomfortable — more to the point was that Foster regretted doing what he was about to do and was putting it off as long as possible. Accordingly, he had stopped to inspect the storefront on the other side of the building, one that had held a laundromat before being emptied and gutted six months before. Fit and trim, with his dark hair slicked back from a slightly thinning hairline, Ted Foster was about ten years younger than Greg — that is, mid-thirties — and several inches shorter, though he carried himself erect in his tailored suit and exuded the confidence of his position. Not technically the landlord, he worked for a development corporation and managed this and a dozen other properties in the East Village and Lower East Side.
"How's business?" Foster asked, inanely.
"Oh, you know, nobody reads anymore. Still, hanging in there. Thinking about branching out into CDs. What have you been up to?"
"Watching the Yankees. I think they're gonna take the series this year with A-Rod at third."
This didn't look good. Foster rarely came around. He had a super who took care of the property, a Mexican, Jose, a hard worker and conscientious — though Jose had replaced the sixty-year-old Mr. Grundy, who had swept up around the place and taken out the trash for twenty years, becoming something of a fixture. "They'd better win it, with what they're paying him!" Greg said.
They stood beneath the newly restored and freshly painted iron work of the century-old fire escape. Everything on the building above street level had been refurbished in the past year: the stoop repaired, the trim repainted, the crumbling bricks and terra cotta molding replaced. "You know, Greg," Foster said, "your lease is up next month."
"Uh, yeah, I've been meaning to talk to you about that." Actually, he'd been dreading it.
"I guess you probably saw this coming, but I'm going to have to get a bit more rent out of that space." Foster quoted a rent that was approximately triple what Greg was paying.
Yeah, Greg had seen it coming, a mile away. And yet still he was taken aback by the figure. "There's no way I can pay that."
"You've been a good tenant and I would hate to lose you," Foster said, unconvincingly. In truth, he would have just as soon be rid of the dilapidated old bookshop, the hand-lettered sign above the now-shuttered store becoming illegible as the paint peeled to reveal a weathered, warped sheet of plywood.
"This is not a high margin business," Greg said. "I'm just barely breaking even as it is."
Excerpted from The Chintz Age by Ed Hamilton. Copyright © 2015 Ed Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Sagging Meniscus Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFat Hippie Books,
The Chintz Age,
Rock of the Lower East Side,
King of the Underground,
The Retro-Seventies Manhattan Dream Apartment: A Novella,
About the Author,