From a conversation with Raul, a resident of Manhattan, included in The Edge Becomes the Center, an oral history of gentrification in New York City, by D. W. Gibson, out in May from Overlook Press.
It was a good neighborhood, the East Village. It was bugged out, rich people, poor people, everybody on top of each other. I was like eight, seven, and I had this friend, his name was Richard, black kid — we’d go all the way to the West Side Highway, when the West Side Highway was still up high, and I used to look at the graffiti on the walls. I wondered why somebody would do that.
I used to write — graffiti, whatever. The gods, they don’t mention the word “graffiti.” It’s “writing.” I fuck up and call it graffiti all the time. Writing on trains is the ultimate. You gotta be in and out. I wasn’t great by any means, but I went to prestigious yards where we would stop and just look around — where the fuck am I? I’ve been to mad, grand, crazy yards.
When I was sixteen, Patti Astor and Bill Stelling opened up the Fun Gallery. They made graffiti expensive. Fab 5 Freddy did Andy Warhol soup cans on the trains. He brought it all together on my block. I went across the street and introduced myself. My friends, they were scared, they wouldn’t go. I didn’t give a shit — that’s my block! I grew up there. If it was on another block, I would never in a million years have introduced myself to them. I was just like, Fuck it. Jean-Michel, Keith Haring, those dudes, they were on my block. I was hanging out with rock stars, gods. I was like the little kid in the group. I’m going to fucking Warhol parties, eating seaweed.
That’s when New York was New York. Mudd Club, Max’s. A good time to grow up. Andy Warhol used to always be in Keith Haring’s studio. I was scared to death of him. Sometimes on Sundays he would have these little picnics in Central Park. I used to have a baseball team and he’d always come watch us. Interview magazine had a baseball team, and we used to beat the shit out of them all the time. My team was Futura, Fab 5, Zephyr, Ricky Powell (used to be a famous photographer), the Beastie Boys, two or three kids from my neighborhood who were really good at baseball, and me — and we would kill it.
I was working getting weed for people and shit. And I used to steal linen canvases from Utrecht and sell them to all the big painters. I had a rent-controlled apartment, a little studio. I was in love with this girl and shit, and we moved to Mercer Street. All of a sudden I went from paying four hundred dollars to two grand. I remember walking the streets thinking, Where am I gonna get the money for this fucking apartment? I ran into this guy I knew — a booker for a model agency. He asked, “You know where I can get some?” [Raul mimes sucking back on a joint, though there’s still half a glowing blunt in his other hand.] He took me under his wing, introduced me to everybody. I went from having, like, a nickel in my pocket to — I had two hundred grand on me in one year. I had never had that kind of money. It was overwhelming at twenty-seven.
People back in the day, in the late Nineties and shit, they be like, “Yo, I’ll fly you out to Paris right now.” Shit like that. I used to go out to the Hamptons a lot, twice a day. I’d bring my girlfriend. Go there, have lunch, go to the beach for a second. Get on a helicopter, come back. Go back that night.
When I was still really young, twenty-six, twenty-seven, I had the concierge of the Carlyle on my payroll — you’d be surprised what goes on in that hotel. I remember going to see my guy, standing behind Nancy Reagan. That was really funny. I’m right behind her. Secret Service dudes. And it was just me and her. Some dudes, they do this job and they take advantage of girls. I take advantage of socialites. Billionaire heiresses. Fucking billionaires up in my crib and the husbands in the Mercedes-Benz outside right here waiting to go to dinner — at the restaurant that I suggested they go to!
These kids, now they’re smoking T.H.C., they’re melting it down, and they have all these new things I don’t even know about. It ain’t Alphabet City no more. You want to get some dope, it’s like a James Bond movie. Before you’d see somebody nodding off, be like, “Yo, where’d you get that?” He’d tell you, you’d go. Now it’s like foie gras and expensive bottles of wine and shit.
Now I’m semiretired, but when I was doing my thing, when I was in the zone, people would come to my house and worlds would meet. I’ve had meetings in this apartment, trying to get people tens of millions of dollars, and I just put it together, trying to make it happen and shit. People say I could have been big at something else — a producer, something. I know how to make money. I tell girls or friends of mine, “Yo, I got a lot of fucking money, you got any ideas?” And nobody has another idea. I walk around New York, I feel stupid. I’d like to take the dirty money and do something with it.
Two or three years, God knows what this place is going to be like. It’s just a different species, a different animal now. We used to always sit on the stairs on the street. And on my block, if you go there now, they have little gates so you can’t sit on anything. They put all these little spikes all over the neighborhood. You couldn’t sit there.
Just old New Yorkers have that connection with their neighborhoods. There’s no more neighborhoods anymore. Nobody knows each other. It’s true. Look at the church where I had my First Communion, on 12th Street. It used to be ten o’clock English, eleven Spanish, twelve Greek, and one o’clock would be French or something. Now it’s an NYU dorm. They tore down the church but left the steeple up in front of the new building — you see that? Crazy shit.