An exile on mean streets

In 1982, the thoroughly English Quentin Crisp set up home in one of Manhattan's most insalubrious neighbourhoods. Thus began his love affair with the Big Apple. Photographs by Arlene Gottfried
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It was a great relief to all concerned when one of my spies found me the room I now occupy on Manhattan's Lower East Side. This is an ideal spot, though guests look round the place uneasily and say, "Do you have to live here?" I reply, "Yes" - but that is not the whole truth. If I knew that I would die sometime during the next two years, I could live in a palace riddled with standard of living, but unfortunately I don't. I never dreamed that I would live as long as I have. When I was young, everybody said, "We never thought you'd live through another winter", and that was nice. It made me feel frail, not long for this world, but here I am, a somewhat grisly sight, tottering about the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the age of 86. When I got to America, I hoped I would die before my shoes wore out but now my entire wardrobe is threadbare and I am threadbare, too.

My mode of living only represents poverty to Americans - not to me. I live here in exactly the same way that I lived in London. I like living in one room and have never known what people do with the rooms they are not in. The only trouble is the books. I try never to read. Books are for writing, not for reading, but still they pursue you from three sources. Firstly, authors send you the books they have written. I don't think English writers ever do that. It would seem immodest. These you must read for fear that you will meet their authors on the street and they will question you about their work. Then there are the magazines that send you books with a covering note telling how many words to write about them and what you will be paid. Lastly, there are publishers who send you uncorrected proof copies of books they intend to market with a letter that says, "We are sure you will enjoy this book and hope you will share your enthusiasm with us." That means: "Say something nice that we can put on the back of the first edition. Do not expect to be paid." To these I always reply, "Please feel free to quote me as saying anything that will promote sales of this excellent work." Mostly, the publishers do just that. One firm quoted the whole line, which I thought was really daring and funny.

Nothing like this would ever occur in Britain. An Englishman once said to me accusingly, "You're the one who lives in America permanently - why?" I explained that here everybody speaks to everybody everywhere you go. On this remark, his comment was, "I can't think of anything worse." To demonstrate that this attitude is a national one, I repeat a story told by a friend of mine about a friend of hers.

A woman, intending to make a long journey by rail, went to a main-line terminus in London and, as she was early, entered the station canteen. There she bought a cup of coffee and a Kit Kat. Then she had to negotiate the change, the Kit Kat, the coffee, her shoulder bag, and her suitcase, while she looked for somewhere to sit. The only vacant seat that she could see was at a table where someone was already seated, so, reluctantly, she sat there. After putting down her case and sliding her bag from her shoulder, she put some free sugar and milk into her cup. The Kit Kat was lying in the middle of the table. The moment she unwrapped it and laid it out on its sheet of silver foil, the man opposite her leaned forward, broke off a piece, and ate it. Deeply affronted, she also broke off a piece. Then, when she was taking a few sips from her cup, he took another piece, leaving her only one last bit. This she quickly devoured.

Then the stranger went to the counter and bought himself a cream bun, which was a spiral confection with a little disc of pastry on the top. At that moment, the woman's train arrived, so she hastily reversed the original ritual, hitched her bag on to her shoulder, took up her suitcase and, as she passed her enemy, she snatched the lid from his bun and ate it defiantly. Then she boarded the train and, as it moved off, she put her case in the luggage rack, sat down, took her bag on to her lap, opened it, and there was the Kit Kat. The one on the table had, of course, been his, but because he and she were both English and had never been introduced to one another, neither could say, "What the hell are you doing with my chocolate biscuit?"

Sad to say, last weekend I had to decline a kind invitation from Jack Eric Williams, who offered to persuade one of his unsuspecting friends to transport us by car into the countryside. I do not hold with nature, but I would gladly have overcome my revulsion from leaves and blades of grass in the hope of escaping for a while from the oven-like atmosphere of the city. This was not to be. Instead, I was compelled to choose between sitting in my room naked with the door shut, thus forfeiting even the hope of a breeze wafting past me, or leaving the door open and wearing clothes so as not to disgust any fellow inmates of the house who might chance to pass by. I tried both these courses of inaction and, in each case, spent most of Saturday and Sunday flopping about with my hair clinging to my forehead, a pool of sweat accumulating in my navel and testicles hanging down to my knees while I attempted to become acquainted with the contents of eight full pages of typescript so that, on the following day, I might be able to orate them with feigned spontaneity before a television camera.

The next morning, I spent the early hours blotting out the pools of perspiration on my face with powder with much the same distaste and with about the same amount of sporadic success as that with which the police cover with sand the grim signs of a street accident. By ten o'clock, a car had arrived to transport me to an address on Sixth Avenue. This turned out to be the home of a photographer and a sculptress. It covered the entire top floor of the building and was a whole world of loosely defined areas linking eating and working spaces. From the middle of it all sprang up a spiral staircase leading to a flat roof so densely afforested that it was a wonder that all that exotic vegetation did not cause the edifice to topple over into the street.

With unflagging good nature, our hosts allowed not only me but also a cast of thousands of cameramen, sound-recordists, and general organisers to swarm all over their home for most of the day. When all had been said and all had been recorded, we went to Brooklyn so that I could be photographed trying to look noble against a distant backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and various ferry boats meandering hither and thither. Let no one ever speak ill of New York taxi drivers. In spite of all sorts of hazards, two of them, like charioteers in Mr Hur's movie, consented to drive abreast from the middle of Sixth Avenue to the very edge of Brooklyn merely so that I could be photographed seeming to enjoy the scenery as we sped through the city and over the picturesque ruin that used to be the Brooklyn Bridge. The entire undertaking was not completed until evening, and a benediction of rain had begun to fall upon us. Then, at last, I was released at my front door.

People used for ever to be asking me, "Isn't there anything in England that you miss?" I could tell from the pleading tone in their voices that they wished me to have paid a high price for my present contentment, and it was with great reluctance that I said, "No." Now I have thought of a way to gratify their lust for the sorrows of others. There is one small disadvantage to living in America. When real winter arrives, the radiators of Manhattan begin to clank and hiss and tenants know that happiness - or, at least, heat - is on the way, but at this time of year while in the street it is still warm, indoors it is cool, occasionally too cool. I have a fair - nay, an indulgent - landlord, but there is not much we can do about this predicament. On the days when I remain at home from dawn till dusk and beyond, I do not like to sit around fully dressed; I like to loll about in a filthy dressing gown. It is more comfortable, and minimises the wear and tear on my few "going-out" clothes.

This quandary does not only occur in humble dwellings on the Lower East Side. When I first arrived from the other side of the globe to take up permanent residence here, I was compelled to throw myself on the mercy of a gentleman who lived in splendour on East 39th Street. Even there, the only solution to the problem of autumn was to light the gas cooker, leave the oven door open, and sit before it in a curious, hothouse atmosphere.

In England, however lowly my station in life became, in my bed-sitter I always had a tiny, asthmatic gas fire to which I could run home and by which I could crouch until I was warm. When I ask Americans why there are no gas fires in New York, they reply in shocked voices, "Good heavens! Think of the explosions!"

I arrived back in New York just in time to rush home and telephone a Mr Vincent, whose fair name was written in my sacred book in the space designated June 15. I had never met him and could not remember what on earth I had promised to do for him. The number he had given me was of a department in the United Nations building. I was terrified, but he turned out to be a very cosy gentleman who only wanted to take me to the elegant home of an elegant gentleman named Mr Kooder. The occasion was a party given for some of the members of a group called ILGA - International Lesbian and Gay Association. This is a formidable organisation, but the party was extremely urbane: I don't think an outsider would have been able to guess anybody's guilty secret. However, they fully intend to change the world.

In the taxi on the way to the party, the conversation of my escort had already given me an inkling of the devastation likely to be caused by his iconoclasm and that of his friends. His view of what is usually meant by the words "consenting adults" is a case in point. He thought that the age at which this hazardous status could be deemed lawful is 13. Another conventional notion that he challenged was the meaning of the phrase "in private". He wished it to include sequestered areas of public parks. Where, I asked myself silently, would it all end? Though I did not voice my misgivings to my kind companion or any of his friends, I could not help wondering if a worldwide gesture of defiance of the established order would not one day be regarded as based on what could be termed "the Spartacus Fallacy".

As with Mr Noah and his dove, when I did not return to Britain any more it became known there that I had reached dry land and that therefore it was safe for all the other malcontents of the lost ark of London to fly westward. Among those who made the hazardous journey was a painter whom I had known for a long time in the days when I was only English. Over there, he had often resorted to giving his pictures away; once he alighted in Malibu, his work began to sell like hot cakes - almost like hot Hockneys.

Last week, on learning that a friend he had made on the West Coast was coming to New York, he asked him to telephone me when he arrived and this the young man did, calling himself Mr Stallone. He is really someone quite different but he has a Mexican name too difficult for ordinary mortals to pronounce. However, he is travelling with Mrs Stallone, who really is the mother of the movie star. She was here to rule a stall at the Whole Life Expo, which occupied two entire floors of the New York Hilton.

Mrs Stallone is an absolutely splendid being, festooned with ropes of pearls the size of chicken's eggs. She looks like a fortune-teller and, in a way, she is. She traffics in horoscopes. Within a few seconds of our meeting, she had asked me on what day I was born. When I told her my birthday was Christmas Day, she exclaimed, "Ah, a Capricorn." When I enquired if that was a good thing, she pointed out that it was the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth but did not say if that meant that I could save the world.

On Sunday afternoon, a transvestite came to East Third Street to escort me to a dim cellar beneath a Unitarian church in midtown where, on every second Sunday in the month, a gathering takes place of all the people of ambiguous gender in New York. There were men disguised as women; men disguised as men; women disguised as almost everything. What to me was so remarkable about this meeting was the total absence of bitchiness, of wrangling and of showing off. We celebrated my forthcoming birthday with a delicious cake and I was presented with a tiny lamp which, when rubbed, emits a faint, tinkling melody. I was delighted and humbled by the hospitality lavished upon me.

The following day I went to that part of New York University that is on Broadway at Waverly Place to try to redo the soundtrack of a film that I have never seen. It has been made by some young men who may once have been students at NYU or may merely be pirates who hire the recording equipment available in that extraordinary seat of learning. However, by this time my voice had sunk to an unsteady croak and the whole assignment had to be cancelled.

I went home, had a good cry and, towards nightfall, was collected by an unknown man who had been dragooned by an unknown woman into taking me to her home in Brooklyn. Apart from Mr Cherry-Garrard's voyage to the South Pole, this was the worst journey in the world. Though we implored about eight of them, no taxi driver would take us on such a desperate trek. I couldn't blame them. Brooklyn is a terrible place and all who live there know they have entered an enclosed order. In desperation, we walked to the subway station at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street where we waited for a train that did not come for a long and dangerous time. When it did appear, we forced our way on to it and stood swaying perilously but unable to reach any fixture on which to hold. I have to report that this motley throng of strangers, though pressed into disgusting proximity, remained surprisingly calm - even cheerful. Arriving at our station, we still had a long, dark way to walk over pavements that have not been repaired in a hundred years. By a miracle, when we reached the right house, our hostess was just that minute arriving. Had we not been delayed by so many difficulties on our journey, we would have been compelled to stand in the bitter desolation of a Brooklyn street for some time.

It transpired that our hostess did not really know the gentleman she had obliged to collect me. She had imagined that he owned a car - a notion which he dismissed with a self-deprecating laugh. When he had delivered me, he went away, presumably to recover. The unknown woman and I entered her apartment and I drank tea while she tidied up the place and herself. She was obviously expecting a great throng of guests. Only one arrived. To him and me, she read her poems while my escort, who had by then returned, played a trumpet. This situation, in a muted way, was as bizarre as a James Purdy story, the strangest element being my presence. Why had I been invited? Did my hostess imagine I was a poet, a musician, a critic? For me it was, though harrowing, an enlightening experience but I'm sure that, as a guest, I was a complete failure.

This week my agent said I must go to Philadelphia in spite of all the terrible things WC Fields said about that entirely inoffensive city. She explained that I was to receive more than is usually paid to extras in movies, so I went. I believe that it was Miss Cher who said that being in a film was like being asked to swallow broken glass, and I endorse that impression. Everybody was extremely kind to me, finding a chair for me to sit on during breaks, but the experience was absolute hell.

I was made to do the "Madison", of which I had never even heard. It turned out to be one of those old-fashioned dances involving an enchainement of complicated steps which have to be learned. Actually, I stood in the background and moved minimally to and fro because I am now too old to learn anything. Mr Drake, who was once kissed by Larry Kramer and who wore solid gold boots and a false moustache but very little else, managed to learn the steps with astonishing ease: he even executed them as though he were enjoying the exercise, but then, as we all already know, he is an accomplished actor.

All the extras were appearing as guests at a conspicuously sinful fancy dress party. A member of the crew asked a woman disguised as a cowgirl if she was looking to lasso a cowboy, to which she replied, "Not at this party." Among those present were a bishop, a Monsignor, the Mona Lisa, a circus ringmaster and sundry other ingenious masqueraders. This scene was photographed at night in the apartment of two of the guests who surveyed the situation benignly, though it is certain the place will never be the same again when the movie colony has departed. To this vortex of kinkiness, Mr Tom Hanks, dressed as a naval officer, invited Mr Denzil Washington, who will spend most of the film defending Mr Hanks in a discrimination suit against a firm that has terminated his employment because he has Aids. The picture will be called Philadelphia and is being directed by Mr Jonathan Demme, a charming man who visited all his cast in their trailers to thank them for appearing in his movie.

One of the strangest episodes of my life occurred the other day. I was sitting innocently in my room when the phone rang and an unknown voice said, "We can't get in. There are no front doorbells." (This is because I live in a rooming house. Traditionally, in Manhattan, to live in a rooming house is to be part of an enclosed order.) It was the police. I was very frightened, but I was brave. I went downstairs, opened the front door, and three young policemen burst in. They stood about in my room (there is only one chair) and talked among themselves, but searched my living space for signs of sin. While they were doing this, the telephone rang again and a voice said, "The ambulance is here." I disclaimed all knowledge of such a request having been made, but went downstairs a second time. In the street, I found my landlord, half the denizens of the Lower East Side, and a Mr Sorrentino, who is a performance artist famous for imitating Elton John. I talked for some time, smiled and nodded at the assembled throng, until one of the policemen said, "It is snowing," and suggested (forcefully) that we board the ambulance. So I, one policeman, and Mr Sorrentino were whisked away to hospital in no time.

Once there, my arrival was treated as though long-awaited, but never welcome. My body was handled as though I were already dead, flung unceremoniously on to a wheeled stretcher, raced into an elevator where the other passengers stared down at me coldly, making me long to reach a bed where I thought my privacy would be restored. How wrong I was! Once I was turned on to my bed like a bale of shorn grass, a nurse stripped me of my clothing, which included two bandages around my ankles (without even asking why they were there), and threw them in the rubbish bin. Then she seemed interested in my pair of small white underpants and their contents. When I retreated from this prurient intrusion, with shocked modesty, the fiend, with shrieks of Filipino glee, said she thought I was wearing diapers... as if that made any difference!

I have often wondered why a young woman would adopt such an ugly career as that of hospital nurse. Now I know. They are penis-choppers. They only wish to spend their days among people who are physically unprotected and weaker than they. I have never known such sadism. She jabbed me with needles and, when I began to scream, said with feigned surprise, "I understand you would rather take this stuff orally" - as if preferring to swallow a small black pill to having its contents passed into the veins of my arms were one of my funny little ways.

Now that the episode is mercifully over, I still don't know how or why it happened. I still don't know who rang for an ambulance, or what was supposed to be wrong with me. All I know is that when there is anything wrong with you, go to a faith healer, go to a witch doctor, go to a herbalist, go to a chiropractor, go to an analyst; but don't go to hospital

`Resident Alien' by Quentin Crisp is published next Thursday (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99). To order, post free, call Department 85A on 0181-307 4052)