Twenty-five year East Village resident, Michael Carter, 46, is a native of Glendale, CA who came to New York City in 1980 via Anchorage, Alaska and Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Co-founder in 1982 of the sporadically published Redtape Literary /Arts magazine, Michael has produced a multitude of art curations, readings, musical performances, and video presentations around Gotham. His book of poems, Broken Noses and Metempsychoses was published by Fly By Night/Tribes Books in 1996. Gothamist recently spoke with Michael about his views on poetry, a run-in with Giuliani-era police, and his experiences as an East Village "Homesteader" in the 1980's.
You've been a part of the whole East Village scene since 1980. What was an average day like back in those days? You know, you just go out the door and what’s happening?
I was in my early 20’s and the whole East Village art thing had popped up all around and all that. All these people are trying to cash in on the early success of people like Keith Haring and Basquiaat. They brought a lot of attention to the neighborhood. Not that they hadn’t been there before but all the galleries were opening up and all these afterhours clubs. You didn’t really have to work a 9 to 5 job or something. I kind of had one for a while, but you didn’t need to; it was an alternative way of dealing with culture.
At the height of it, maybe not the height, but in maybe ‘83 or ’84 there were like 50 art openings you could go to. Of course there was a lot of drunkenness and drugs. But there were also all these openings you could go to and just hang out. It was a big hang out thing. And then after that you would go to one of the nightclubs or afterhours clubs and everybody knew each other.
Sounds a lot like Williamsburg now.
I think there were less people kind of involved or “in the know” or whatever and… I mean there’s a lot of creativity in Williamsburg… there was a lot of creativity then, but there was also a lot of bad stuff, and people that were trying to be creative – that’s anybody’s guess, what is creative and what is not creative, but I think there were also a lot of people you might call a poseur or something. But there was still a lot to get involved in.
Speaking of involvement, you were involved in the squat movement back then. How did that come about?
What happened with our building was there were about six original people, I wasn’t one of them, though I came in just after that, and they had originally entered into the building because a bogus landlord put an ad in the Village Voice saying this was a building for rent very cheap. They did a little bit of research and figured out that this guy did not own the apartment, that someone had defaulted on Real Estate taxes or something and that it was owned by the City of New York. I mean, that was a very common thing in the late 70’s and early 80’s, on the Lower East Side and many other parts of New York.
So it ended up, I don’t know, this guy took their rent and their deposits and he moved Brazil or something. And those six people, they decided to pursue legal ownership of the building. About six months later, I moved in there with my friend. And you know, hey, it was fun. I moved in there and was paying like $100 a month. There was no toilet. There were no windows...
I remember my first task as the newcomer into the building was to take a hammer and smash – this was on the first floor and this was my first designated task, to prove that I had at least something of what it took to be a member of that building, was to take a very large hammer, I think it was a baby sledge, and smash into a very big pipe… and instantly all this shit was stored in there for God knows how long, 50 years or something, spewed all over the fucking place including my face.
Ah, the joys of squat living…
Yeah, you know something about that though. When I came to New York I didn’t even know what a squat was. And yeah, it was a squat, but we thought of it as a Homestead building, a squat building that was trying to become a homestead, an Urban Homestead. And there’s a little bit of difference there. See, I grew up in Alaska and Homesteading, that was something I could understand, that was something where the government ceded you a certain amount of land and your responsibility was to go there and build something on it and make something happen.
How’s that different from being a squat?
The idea is that the Homesteader, you’re trying to make that into a place where you want to make it your home for the rest of your life or something. Now a squatter, similar but, there were a lot of people that were involved in what was called the squatter movement, as I was, but it’s a political act, doing it to reclaim this territory from the evil capitalists, landlords and other economic entities. There were people, including myself, who understood the relationship between the anarchic denial of ownership and taking over a building and making it your own.
So you fell into the Homesteader camp?
I was both. I was a Homesteader but there was also a political aspect to it. The way that real estate interests mainifested and imposed themselves on various populations, especially on the Lower East Side and in the East Village. It was obvious, even in 1980 – which is when I moved there -- that there were a lot of people who just wanted to take over these buildings, raise the rent, kick everybody else out, and that’s what happened eventually.
Well, not everybody. You’re still living there, no?
Yeah. Basically it was a fight with the City of New York, an eight year struggle. We were recognized by the city around 1985, we had a co-management arrangement with the City. We had no ownership stake in the building, yet we were managing it. There were various steps that you had to go through in order to get some recognition that you weren’t just bogus squatters.
In fact there was something called the Homestead program that had been put into place in the 70’s. If you were able to bring the building to a certain level you were able to qualify for it. There were a hell of a lot of hoops that you had to jump through, bureaucratic mostly, and of course we were subject to the whims of City government.
We did a lot of work to bring the building up to code. That was the first thing. Built up the parapets on the roof, that kind of stuff. One of the other things we did right at the same time was all these junkies had been living in the building, throwing their crap out in buckets into the air shaft, an open air shaft, and this thing was filled like two feet deep with all this junkie shit from like 20 years. One of the first things we had to do was like put on masks and dig this crap up with flat handled shovels and get rid of it.
You were living with junkies?
Well, we’re talking about 15, 20 years of this stuff piling up, but, yeah, there were some really major drug dealers in this building and they worked it out. I was not one of the people who went in there with the baseball bats and tried to get rid of these guys, but there were some ex-Vietnam guys in our building and they didn’t think anything about doing that. At a certain point they even tried to do that to me. They were just about cleaning up the neighborhood.
So we had those kind of guys and we also had some people, including some of the friends I came there with, that were thinking more along the lines of “this is an alternative way to have a housing situation in New York City and, okay, let’s make the rules up as we go along.
When did you actually become legal?
It was 1988 I think that we actually purchased a share of the building from the City. At first we were basically dealing with the Koch administration but I think we bought the building under Dinkins. But bought, that’s a colloquial expression because we still haven’t bought the building. We were able to make an arrangement with the City -- I think it was called the 60/40 program -- where we would retain 60% of it and the city would retain 40% of it. So any apartment that was sold, the city would still get their share. But, yeah, I'm a part owner of the building. For what it's worth.
What is it worth? Oh, never mind. You had a run-in with the police back in the early 90’s didn’t you? Could you tell us a bit about that?
I was right near Odessa, Lesko’s at the time, and I was across the street. In those days I walked on the other side of the street because I didn’t want to get hassled by people on the park side. This was only around 11 o’cock in the evening. I was just going home to sleep. And I thought they were closing down the park and I saw them hassling some guy. I have no idea who he was. And I just let out with a litany “I remember pretty clearly when you could walk through the park and no police hassled you…” I’m not getting it exactly right, but that was basically the gist of it and I said it very loudly. I said things about Giuliani… I was just riffin’ off the top of my head.
Next thing I know, these cops are there and they’re saying “Are you this guy who was talking shit about the police?” I didn’t want to admit it. “I’m just trying to get home Officer,” I said. Next thing you know I’m getting arrested.
What were they arresting you for?
I have no idea. They originally charged me with, not incitement to riot, but… you know, it doesn't matter, it was just a nightmare. They threw me against the wall. They handcuffed me. They’re saying “You’re that guy that was mouthing off at the police.” I’ve got my hands behind my back and all of a sudden, I don’t know, someone whacked me in the back of the head. I don’t know what it was. I think I lost consciousness for a minute. Next thing is I’m on the other side of 10th street and there are seven or eight cops and a couple cop cars and I’m getting railroaded into one of them. Then when they take me down to the 9th precinct there are all these cops there and they’re laughing at me “Hey, look who we got. Look who we got.”
They knew who you were?
I was definitely involved in the protests against the whole closing down of Tompkins Square Park and I guess I was known. I didn’t know that I was that well known, but I guess I was a known activist at that time. I wouldn’t really exacerbate that “known activist” point, though. Its just that I was someone who the police knew more about than I thought they knew, only, I think, because I was involved in some organizations that were trying to keep the park open, trying to deal with the rights of the Tent City people that were living there… But I wasn’t some anarchist guy. I always felt that I was more just part of the conscience of the community. I still feel like that.
I was in central booking for 28 hours and ended up with all these welts on my arms and chest. My Public Defender said “We’re going to claim police brutality on this thing.”
And that’s what you did?
Well, yeah, it was true.
So you sued the City?
Did you win?
We settled. But we at least made them give something back. People have forgotten this stuff already. Giuliani gave the police carte blanche. He was the police czar of New York. I was on 13th street when the last of the squats got taken down and an armored personnel carrier, they paraded it up 13th street and it scared the fuck out of a lot of people, including me. 9/11 notwithstanding, Giuliani was a fascist in the Mussolini mode and it’s important for people to know this stuff. This is a guy who might be running for president.
Do you think the police have gotten better since then?
I don’t really have any way to judge that… I think it’s much more difficult to challenge the powers that be these days. I mean New York is a city that is totally enthralled with Real Estate. Its so expensive and it doesn’t matter where you live. The gendarmes are in charge.
You’re a poet. You must have written about the experience…
I wrote a poem right when I got back from the police station. But I haven’t really written about that. I think I blocked it out.
What do you write about? What’s your inspiration?
A big part of the reason I do do poetry and read poetry and am really involved in it and all that is because I feel it’s a way to explore who I am – my relationship between myself and my thoughts, myself and my emotions, my relationship with society and not dealing with society, yet also trying to find some beauty in it. Hopefully some lyricism emerges from it. And of course, this idea of lyricism… I read a lot of poetry and I love words and poetry and literature, so there’s also an aspect that has to do with what I perceive as my relationship with the English language.
Its basically just voices I hear in my head, voices that I listen to that are telling me to try to interpret all this. A certain amount of it comes out as a private code that may or may not be decipherable to other people.
Interesting this private code aspect you mention, because it’s a private code maybe, but it’s still a code that you’re putting out to the world…
That’s right. You’re absolutely right. And I think if you write a kind of personalized poetry, one of the most important things to realize is that it may or may not be expressing yourself in the public vernacular…
So are you trying more to connect with other people or with yourself?
Well, I think that’s exactly what poetry is about, at least for me. Exploring the tension between those two tendencies. Okay, this is how I write… When I first write something I don’t really give a flying fuck whether anyone else understands it. Yet when I realize that it is something that could possibly be presented to the world I want there to be a certain amount of… well, I don’t want it to be totally opaque. I feel a responsibility that it shouldn’t just follow the meanderings of a demented mind.
Because whether you create a poem or a photograph or an installation, you have to be somewhat aware how that might impact. I mean, ultimately the spectator or the audience are the ones who are going to interpret it and give it the value. So, I think you try to hit some universal that people hopefully get, some kind of associational thing, that you know that they’re with you.
Any common themes you come back to?
My most common theme is just moments and why you think there’s a moment. History is part of it. The question of time. And when I say time I’m talking about the existential moment. I was very influenced by existentialism. Who am I? Why am I? Where the hell are we going to? That kind of thing. Why do we live? Why do we die? And trying to capture aspects of those moments, not necessarily in a personally ruminating way, but just trying to capture the effervescence of certain colors, images, words, associations of words. It’s a very personal thing to try to chart those moments. And poetry for me is a way you can dig at things.
Okay, here we are in a bar. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Styrofoam chalices of beer in front of us, The Beatles playing on the jukebox… Not to put you on the spot here, but how would you chart it?
Happy, wacky, whacking someone with a pool cue…. green brooklyn in the turkey red talons of hell.
That was very Beat of you. Were you influenced at all by them?
Like a lot of East Village people I think I was inspired by Howl and Allen Ginsburg. Gary Snyder was a very big influence on me. But that was when I was in college. I think before that my first big influence was probably Poe. And one of my favorite poets is Rilke. Rilke was like if an an angel fell to earth would anyone hear it?