One day I sat on the subway relishing eating a crisp Granny Smith apple. In hindsight, that’s a farily anti-social thing to do. An old man sat opposite me. He had the skinniest crossed legs I’d ever seen and a fedora pulled down low over his eyes. I had presumed he was asleep but then he said, “That’s a nice looking apple”.
“I should eat more apples” he continued. I said he should try for one a day. He laughed. A guy walking down the carriage handed us flyers for a ‘fortune teller/guidance specialist’ “she’d tell me to eat more apples” he joked, after which we had a thirty minute conversation covering a range of topics including, the entire history of his life, architecture, Iphones and his latest ‘rock opera’. He was fascinating, if a little crazy. It turned out he had moved to New York in the seventies, joined a punk band, once swapped houses with a guy he met on the subway and spent some time in jail. He looked in his late sixties now and maintained all of his punk spirit. His name was Chris Santana and this is the story of his life which he related to me on the subway on a Sunday afternoon for no reason at all apart from that I found it bloody fascinating.
Born in Upstate New York, Chris grew up in a town near Sing-Sing prison (where they still execute people using the electric chair) on the Hudson river. When somebody was ‘getting fried’ the lights in their house would dim or go out. He started going to downtown Manhattan to party when he was fifteen. He eventually moved to the city when he was seventeen, ‘like everybody else did’.
He landed in the East village, in an apartment block on Second Avenue and B. He lived with kids from all around New York, New Jersey, Connecticut… ‘if you had anything about yourself, you went to New York…’ They had a stove in their apartment but no bathtub. The bathtub was on a different floor in another apartment. In order to take a bath he had to boil water on the stove to fill up the tub. The apartment was a maze of wires and fittings. There was one wire which plugged everything into the mains switch. Sounds horrendous, but he was smiling and laughing the whole time he talked about it.
His first job was at the Seventh avenue jazz bar. The Brecker brothers played there. It was good spot for music, drinks and a bite to eat. He was a porter and worked the day shifts. He got there at nine, made his eggs in the kitchen, cleaned up and prepared for the next night. ‘it was a great gig!’. As he cleaned he would find what the punters had left from the night before; money, wallets, jewelry and drugs.
For two years he lived in this East Village apartment renting from a ‘Slum lord”, a ‘prissy guy’ who charged them $175 a month, imagine! They soon figured out that even when they didn’t pay their bills the gas and water were never turned off. So they stopped paying the bills.
The East Village was full of artists back then. The bars were cheap and the scene was lively, ‘Everyone was out and everyone was getting laid’. When AIDS hit, the neighbourhood changed, the art scene died. People were scared, ‘everyone was dying and no-one knew why’. Crack dealers moved in the apartment downstairs and bought trouble with them. The building lost the enjoyment it held when he first arrived.
Chris met his first wife on the street one day in the East village. They crossed paths, walked three paces past one another and then both stopped, turned, and started talking, or so he tells it. They had a kid and she got a job in LA. His punk band had split up by then, so they moved, to ‘a dump on Venice Beach’. He looked after the kid while she worked and ‘it was good for a while’.
It didn’t last though and after going back and forth from New York for a time, after a few years he moved back. On his first in the city he met a guy on the subway who had an apartment in Brooklyn. This guy from Brooklyn just happened to be wanting to move to LA. They got on the same carriage and when they got off, they had agreed to swap apartments.
Chris loves and will always live in New York because ‘you can always bum a cigarette from someone’. He lived in Jersey for a while but never liked LA because there was ‘too much of a sense of entitlement’ Giuliani was the worst thing to happen to New York he says. He gave the East Village to NYU and with it a sense of ‘appropriateness’ of ‘protocol’. He dislikes the appropriateness and protocol which the NYU students have bought to his beloved East village.
He will never live anywhere else though, as ‘New York will never change because New York is always changing…you will always find one person in the bunch that is acting like a real human being… Among the top ten things that keeps it so happening is simply, the Turnover.’