Walking home in Chinatown, New York, 4:30am, October, 1977

Me and John Rickard, a cabinet maker who’s a bit younger than I am – maybe 26, stand on a window ledge 10 stories above 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village wrestling two redwood planter boxes into two curvy wrought iron balconies. This is because the magazine that hired me and got me a green card, a lefty newsmag called Seven Days, has lasted not much longer than its name. Instead of editing for a living I do whatever I can for a few bucks an hour. Like most of my friends -- lower Manhattan artists, writers and filmmakers -- I look for craft work. I’m registered with an employment exchange for freelance graphic artists, given that writers get less than a few bucks an hour, and yesterday they told me to report for work at a midtown address which, it turns out, is Rolling Stone magazine’s office.

At 1pm I’m on the job, cutting and pasting galleys onto layout sheets for an issue with Rod Stewart on the cover. It’s two years since I quit being publisher of the Australian edition of this magazine, and I think about telling my co-workers this curious fact but don’t. Why would they care? And besides, the art director is cruising the layout tables checking our Oxford rules with a magnifying glass and expecting heads down and conversation minimal.

The article I’m pasting up is about the passage in Congress of the Hyde Amendment, which essentially allows states to make abortions punishingly expensive or just impossible to get, subverting the recent liberalization of abortion laws nationally. The story, by Ellen Willis, sounds a warning that the right-wing/Christian backlash against feminism is unleashed.

After work I head down Fifth Avenue, stopping to read recipes in a bookshop since tenuous finances dictate I must henceforth cook my every meal. I conclude that Thai is the best bang for buck taste-wise, with minimal prep time. I head down to Tribeca, my stomping ground until a few weeks back when I moved to a loft in Chinatown. P kicked me out of her loft on Park Place because my new relationship with a co-worker (now also unemployed) at Seven Days displeased her. P is an artist whose latest work is a cardboard model of the World Trade Centre stapled to the floor over a map of surrounding streets showing where the towers would land if they were to fall over. Our loft (now hers) at 25 Park Place, is one block north and would cop it for sure.

Well after midnight I’m in Barneys, the smaller of the only two bars in Tribeca, telling Cara how I’d been dangling over Fifth Avenue holding one end of a planter box, and I see her eyes narrow and she says, “Yeah OK I get it, you said that already,” and walks away. Too many beers, but I tell myself I had good cause to blab on about the boxes, never before having dangled like that.

Barneys bar on Duane, Tribeca, 1977. I'm looking for the photo credit...

Barneys bar on Duane, Tribeca, 1977. I'm looking for the photo credit...

Barneys, whose full name is Barnabus Rex, has a pool table leaving room for 30 people if everyone’s elbow to elbow with sucked-in guts, which we are as 4am closing time approaches. The crowd is all local artists since no one else wants to live in Tribeca. I’ve noted that Cara gets angry at the right things, and that that’s a good way to assess a person.

Walking home in dim street-light on Mott St I see an address I remember from the Hansard transcripts of loan documents Doug Anthony dropped on Whitlam when Gough revealed that Anthony had rented a house to the CIA’s man in Canberra Richard Stallings. The words “Commerce International” are typewritten on a business card in the grubby directory by the front door. This part of Chinatown is mostly retail shops spilling onto the narrow sidewalks and washing hanging on lines strung between tenements – and this is where Jim Cairns and Rex Connor were trying to get a multibillion dollar loan to buy back Australia’s natural resources? I’ll come back in daylight and ask questions. I’m writing a longish article for Mother Jones on the American role in the dumping of PM Whitlam and his three-year term that changed everything.

A few doors from my new home at 50 East Broadway, I see through the still darkness a guy illuminated by a single lightbulb inside a 4 ft x 4 ft alcove. He’s sitting on a plastic chair with his back to me, leaning over a beat-up metal table. At his left elbow is a stack of what looks like drink coasters, but soft and beige coloured. He picks one up and I see it’s dough, then he takes a tiny slip of paper from a cardboard box to his right, folds the dough around the paper and puts it on a tin tray. His job, I realize, is putting the fortunes into the fortune cookies that come with your change at the end of every meal in all of New York’s thousands of Chinese restaurants.  

In bed I wonder what he thinks about as he folds the fortunes of people he neither knows nor shares a language with. I bet he doesn’t get even one full dollar an hour.

Phillip FrazerComment