With bongos and bonfire, East Siders embrace dark


By Lincoln Anderson

Whether in a tranquil community garden on Avenue B or at a raging bonfire in Tompkins Sq. Park, young East Siders came together and coped in a variety of ways during the blackout, some even celebrating the event as a bizarre break from “the norm.”

Just south of Delancey St., tenants were raucously drinking beers and partying in the dark in front of 96 Orchard St., where everyone in the building is under age 30, they said.

“It’s bringing the people in the building together,” said Joe Arak, who moved in recently and works at CBSnews.com, of the blackout. “In five minutes, I’ve met like 20 people.”

“We should do it once a week — no power, no nothing,” said Fernando Gil, nightlife editor of Black Book magazine. He was enjoying yelling threats over at the guy guarding Gator Shoes next door that they would be coming over to loot the place later.

Darren Bresnitz had come from Williamsburg.

“The Puerto Ricans over there are barbecuing on every corner. They’re hooking everyone up,” he said. “When [something] like this happens, people just get together.”

Meanwhile the hipsters shared the wealth too, claiming that they had just given a beer to a police officer who had been watching them and eventually dropped by.

“He pounded it,” said Gil. “We gave him a Rice Krispies treat and he asked if there were any mushrooms in it” — as in psychedelic, not Portobello.

In front of the store, Lee Fermin was sitting guard because the metal shutters, electrically operated, were stuck in the open position. There’s a manual chain — of course it was jammed.

The store sells shoes costing up to $900 made from crocodile, alligator, ostrich and stingray. Asked if he would be there all night, Fermin smiled and said yes.

Farther along Delancey St., a woman was plopped down on a mattress. She said she’d been about to get on the PATH train on W. Ninth St. to go back to New Jersey when the blackout hit and she came back to stay with her friend, sitting on a chair next to her. She found the mattress around the corner in the garbage.

“There’s another one there,” she said helpfully.

‘Music on Clinton St.’

On Clinton St., on the other side of Delancey St., the block was solidly Hispanic. Somewhere in the dark on the west side of the street a group had gathered to make and enjoy music. First the bongos started. Then the guitar came in with a steady strumming. Then a tenor voice rose in the dark, singing something about a corazon. Other voices joined in. The song finished and there were cheers. “There’s music on Clinton St. all through the evening,” Leonard Cohen once wrote. Even in a blackout.

There was a slight feeling of danger on the pitch-black block. “Bitch ass,” grumbled a shadowy dreadlocked figure in passing. “Rough ’im up,” said one of a group of young boys as they sauntered by, some twirling glow sticks. A flashlight provided a bit of a feeling of protection.

Similarly, writing a note to a friend by candlelight in front of Lotus Bar at Clinton and Stanton Sts. — where a crowd was hanging out on the sidewalk and beers were selling for $2 — Jennifer Sayles, 32, a film editor, said she found the blackout a little scary. She had played the role of the Good Samaritan twice that evening. On the West Side, she’d bumped into a woman who seemed in distress and escorted her back to the woman’s place in Battery Park City, where young professionals were socializing on the roof. Then she’d come across a young woman crying on Houston St. because her cell phone wouldn’t work, staying with her until she calmed down.

“In both cases I had the same feeling,” Sayles said. She presently biked off to deliver the note — and probably help more people.

Whooping it up

In the East Village at 3B on Avenue B, the mood was anything but somber as bar-goers lustily belted out a medley of classic hits like “La Bamba” and “Stairway to Heaven” and shlockier fare like “Just a Gigolo.”

Nearby, Marcus Jacobs was keeping his North African restaurant open for business, lit by candles, but the place was empty. One of several birthday parties he had booked for the evening was still going to happen.

“We were under the impression the light would come back on at any time,” he said. But even if there was no business that night, it was O.K., he added; his place hadn’t shut one day since opening in Feb. 2001 and it was time for a night off.

Garden sanctuary

For three East Village filmmakers, the Sixth and B Garden at E. Sixth St. and Avenue B was the perfect refuge.

Cari Machet and Anne Hanavan had just finished making copies of a flyer for the Avant Garde(n) Summer Cinema Extravaganza, part of the Howl Festival, and were in a vintage clothing store when the power went out. By chance, they met up later and decided to go to the garden with Rafael Sanchez. They came well prepared with olive spread, pitas, cookies, beverages and a seven-in-one game set.

“We were standing outside of the building and it was hot and it’s so much cooler here and we wanted to play cards,” said Machet of their decision.

“We made s’mores. We had all the fixins’,” said Hanavan as Sanchez massaged her feet, drummers and musicians played around a fire and incense wafted, under a soaring willow tree.

Earlier, three naked people had walked down Avenue B.

“They were pretty,” said Machet in their defense.

Quest for bonfire

Capping off the night’s events, as if it wasn’t hot enough already, was a gigantic bonfire in Tompkins Sq. Park. The fire, the biggest and longest in the park in recent memory, reportedly started about 7 p.m. and blazed until about 3:20 a.m. Although the Fire Department tried to put it out twice earlier, eventually they just let it burn. A big crowd of young people gathered around the flames, accompanied by the preferred blackout music — a drum circle. The flames were stoked with rolls of storm fencing, palettes and anything wooden that people could lay their hands on, even a homeless person’s cardboard. The homeless person’s shopping cart was also tossed in the flames, as were a messenger bike, wire garbage cans and a skateboard that someone “sacrificed.”

As one incredulous neighborhood veteran put it, “There’s a fire, I’m drinking beer in the park and it’s past midnight.” It certainly wasn’t a typical park night.

Said Marta, a 14-year East Village resident, “It’s nice to see it happen again. I’ve seen [fires in] barrels. I’ve seen tent city…. This is a moment when you get to liberate that part of yourself.”

On this extraordinary night, for once the homeless were allowed to sleep the night in the park. The few who had remained could be seen slumped over the chess tables and on benches.

Fireworks occasionally popped in the distance. But the main attraction was the mostly young, bare-chested men who jumped and in some cases walked or even “vogued” over the flames. However, at one point two of them launched from opposite sides of the flames and collided in midair, with one landing in the inferno. “Ohhh!” the crowd exclaimed in pain. Looking hurt, the man staggered off

Police lay back

Not wearing riot helmets, police walked around the park, keeping an eye out, but not trying to stop things, and not getting too near the action at the big fire. A group of officers with flashlights approached one of several smaller, less rowdy campfires on the park’s lawns, looked at it for a second, then turned around, leaving the group alone. Some observers said it was probably best to “let the kids have their fun” instead of risking a confrontation.

At a payphone on deserted Avenue A, a concerned Jim “Mosaic Man” Power was calling the media:

“Uh yes, Channel 4 news? There’s a major fire in Tompkins Sq. Park and the police are slowly amassing….”

Power told The Villager the cops had told him to go in the park and “survey” the situation. Another longtime resident told The Villager police asked his advice on whether they should shut the park down or let the scene continue; he advised the latter.

At one point around 3 a.m., young men started heaving glass bottles at the fire from about 40 ft. away. Outside the park, a woman in sandals sat on the curb, pressing a bandage to her bloody ankle where she had been hit by some of the shattered glass.

Oh, brother!

At his candy store, Ray Alvarez had his door locked and some flashlights propped up in the window through which he was serving people.

“Hello-o-o brother!” he said in his trademark salute. “Business is good. But I can’t sell ice cream or hot dogs.” With his grill and soft ice cream and frozen yogurt machines out of commission, he was hawking candy and cold canned drinks, chilling the cans a few at a time in ice.

A drunk-looking man with a foreign accent staggered by.

“Manhattan is dead. Manhattan is dead,” he muttered.

He must have missed the bonfire.

Picture: Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Hipsters, left to right, Joe Arak, Fernando Gil and Darren Bresnitz partied in front of their “under age 30” building on Orchard St. The camera’s flash was the only light.

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