Think of This as a Window: Remembering the Life and Work of Maggie Estep

“I moved to Lower Manhattan when I was seventeen. The only things I cared about were books and music.”

Sari Botton | Longreads | February 2015

 

A year ago this month the world lost an incredible talent. Maggie Estep, a great writer—and before that, slam poet/performance artist—died suddenly, a month shy of 51.

The loss has hit me hard, even though I had been just getting to know Maggie personally. She was someone I’d idolized from the time we were both in our twenties, she a couple of years older than I. I’d see her stomping around the East Village, where I lived, too, in a black dress with fishnets and a combat boots, utterly self-possessed and unconcerned with what you thought of her.

Before I knew who she was, I sensed she was someone, and I was right. I started freelancing for MTV News in the mid-nineties and quickly got the lowdown on her: She was an outspoken, transgressive feminist star of the slam poetry scene, appearing often at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café and on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She made records.

I laughed and cried at “Hey, Baby”—her hilarious spoken-word MTV video. It’s a cut off her No More Mister Nice Girl record, where she takes a lewd, crotch-grabbing catcaller completely off guard with a brilliantly absurd response—basically, saying, “Sure, that sounds good, let’s go back to my place . . .” I’m embarrassed to admit that before seeing that video, it hadn’t occurred to me to feel anything but flattered and validated when men on the street catcalled.

Maggie was all kinds of cool. She recorded a cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious.” Steve Buscemi directed her in a music video for it—in which Reed makes a cameo appearance, because he thought it seemed cool. (Reed passed away just months before Maggie, and she blogged about it. Then Buscemi eulogized Maggie at a memorial for her in Hudson, New York.

Maggie went on to write seven critically acclaimed novels, but when the publishing industry took a dive a few years ago, she was forced to buck up and get her real estate license, like so many writers in our age group. It bummed me out, and I wrote about it for The Billfold.

Before she set up shop in the Halstead office in Hudson, N.Y., where she’d moved a few years after leaving New York City, she came to read at a story slam hosted by TMI Project, a nonprofit I work for. I couldn’t believe that the Maggie Estep, slam icon, was showing up for that, but she did.

That was the first time she and I were properly introduced, and I invited her to contribute an essay to my collection, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving New York, which she did.

Maggie Estep and Chloe Caldwell. Photo by Dana Kinstler

Maggie Estep and Chloe Caldwell. Photo by Dana Kinstler

She read at an event for the book on Friday, February 7th, with two other contributors, Chloe Caldwell and Dana Kinstler, at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck. Just a few days later, Maggie was suddenly gone.

I dedicated the follow-up collection, Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love For New York, to her. Chloe Caldwell, who had become close to Maggie in the last year of her life, dedicated her novella, Women, to Maggie, too. Chloe has just published this moving tribute to Maggie at Vice.

On the anniversary of Maggie’s passing, here is her brilliant essay from Goodbye to All That.

 

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Think of This as a Window

Maggie Estep | Goodbye to All That | 2013 | 13 minutes (3,176 words)

 

 

I fell in love with New York City one day in 1971, when I saw dozens of people blithely stepping over a dead body on a sidewalk. I was seven years old, walking in Midtown with my grandfather. It was summer. The air smelled like rotting fruit. Steam rose from food vendor carts. There were snarls of traffic, bleating horns, women in cheap knee-length skirts. And that dead body. On the sidewalk. It was probably a drunk, very much alive, just unconscious, but I didn’t know that then. I thought that this city was a place where people lay rotting in the street and no one noticed.

I looked to my grandfather’s face, then to the faces of the other passersby. Everyone was completely ignoring that dead body. I gave my grandfather’s sleeve a tug, but he didn’t feel it or maybe didn’t want to explain what that body was doing there. Even though it would have been excellent evidence in the case he was constantly building against the city that, to him, was a dirty, dangerous place filled with thieves, hippies, runaways, con men, and hookers. He only lived there because my grandmother was ill and needed to be close to good hospitals.

I lived elsewhere, with my nomadic horse trainer parents. We moved a lot. I was always the new kid in town, the one that favored black clothes and smelled like horses.

As I watched people stepping over that body, I felt relief. If the people of New York didn’t bother looking at a dead body, then they weren’t going to bother looking at me. I had found the only place where I was not out of place, where looking vaguely Mediterranean wasn’t a cause for staring.

I moved to Lower Manhattan ten years later, when I was seventeen. The only things I cared about were books and music. I got a job as a receptionist at a record company on West 57th Street and rented the only apartment anyone would rent me, a slanted-floor two-room hovel on Ludlow Street. I knew nothing of the neighborhood’s venerable past as the overcrowded home to thousands of immigrants, gang members, shysters, corrupt politicians, and would-be presidential assassins. It was just a cheap place to live. The building superintendent, a Haitian man named Mike who wore talisman necklaces and had a lot of facial scarring, gladly took my security deposit and handed me the key. “You call if you need anything,” he said, “anything at all.” He failed to give me his phone number, and anyway, I didn’t get a phone installed.

There was a pay phone at the corner of Ludlow and Stanton. Every month or so, I’d get a fistful of change and call my mother to tell her I was alive. She was suspicious about the song of the Mister Softee truck in the background. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, or even which season. The Mister Softee truck was always around, and its insane circus song always playing. One day, I saw a guy with a sawed-off shotgun inside the Mister Softee truck. Probably a lookout for the heroin trade that was the chief industry of the Lower East Side in the early 1980s. The guy saw me staring at him and smiled. That was the thing: I was like a rat or a pigeon, blending in perfectly in this neighborhood. No one bothered me or was bothered by me.

Down the hall lived a man named Jody who was very beautiful. He often shot heroin and sometimes wore women’s clothing. He told me that Taylor Mead, the writer and performer of Warhol fame, lived on the top floor of our building, across from She-Bear, the woman with a hundred cats. Jody said if you stood in the hall at certain times of day, you’d hear Taylor Mead clanging around up there, recording himself talking. But I didn’t like standing in the hall. I had moved to New York to be near lots of people without actually having to interact with them.

Sometimes, I went to nightclubs with my lone friend, Bliss, a big-breasted blonde. We would dance all night with beautiful men. Most of these men were gay, but that was fine; we were more interested in dancing and getting drunk than in having sex. One night, at the Mudd Club, we were dancing so violently to James Chance and his band that a man who had been staring at us all night came over and asked if we were being paid by the band.

When the clubs closed, I’d walk home through a silence so deep I could hear packs of rats moving through garbage bags. Many of the buildings were vacant, holes in their sides where windows had been. Over a bricked-in window someone had spray-painted THINK OF THIS AS A WINDOW.

When the end of the world came, this is what it would be like. And I’d be ready.

I was a loner, but there were people I saw so often that talking to them was unavoidable. There was the pasty guy with dyed black hair who waited for the F train in the same spot I did every morning. I went on a date with him and, a few days later, moved in with him over on Suffolk Street. Two doors down was an empty building with a thriving heroin trade, its entrance guarded by Tina, a tiny Puerto Rican girl. Tina sat on a milk crate in front of the building, tugging at the hem of her miniskirt, speaking in rapid-fire Spanglish to customers and loudly calling out “Agua, agua,” or some equally arbitrary word, when a police cruiser drifted by, as if the cops would have no idea what the touts were doing when they suddenly started crying out “Water!” at the top of their lungs.

Tina usually had a brown paper bag in her lap. I always figured she had a sandwich in there. One day, she opened the bag and showed me a tiny black pistol. “Is that real?” I asked. Tina grinned. She was missing a tooth.

Tina vanished at some point, and eventually, the wide-open drug emporium did too, pushed from the Lower East Side over into Brooklyn and up into Harlem before eventually disappearing entirely as beepers took the place of people like Tina, and investors bought up all the abandoned buildings.

I broke up with the guy from the subway, got fired from my record company job, and then left the Lower East Side for a few years, living in Colorado and belatedly going to college. When I came back to the city, it was different. Avenue A was dotted with boutiques. There were new restaurants that were not Polish diners.

I moved into a room in a rent-controlled apartment on Avenue C. There were rats. I would hear them at night, knocking things over. I’d put boots on, walk into the kitchen, flick the lights on, and find the rats nonchalantly snacking on dry goods, like a bunch of old people at an early-bird buffet. They wouldn’t budge until I swung a broom at them. Sometimes, they rose onto their haunches and hissed at me.

This was exactly the New York my grandfather had railed against when I was a little kid. It was squalid. Probably more squalid than anything he’d seen in his years living there. He was now in Princeton, New Jersey, in a clean, contemporary house that I was afraid to visit for fear I’d dirty anything I touched. It wasn’t just the city that was squalid now. I was too. I lived in the margins, as did most of the people I knew. I wore outfits cobbled together from hand-me-downs from my friend Tom, a struggling filmmaker who stocked up on clothing from dumpsters and thrift shops in Ohio. I lived on very little money. Which isn’t to say I felt deprived in any way. If I wanted to partake of that alternate New York, the one above 14th Street, the New York of dinner parties and polite society and elegant cocktail dresses, I could clean up pretty good. But the New York I loved was down here. The New York I loved was a lawless, exhilarating place where anything was possible.

My fortunes improved by the early 1990s, when I graduated from a long succession of odd jobs to earning money as a writer and performer. I rented a vermin-free garden-facing apartment on East 5th Street. It was by no means luxurious, but it was clean, and very quiet for a New York apartment. Except sometimes at 3 AM. I had an upstairs neighbor who woke in the middle of the night to play his keyboard and croon in an eerie low voice that wasn’t without beauty. The songs he played over and over were so unusual that I didn’t really mind being woken.

One day, my kitchen ceiling started leaking. Water poured from the apartment above, where the Crooner lived. I went up and knocked. I could hear him in there running water, but it took my knocking several times before a small nervous man in a bath towel opened the door a few inches and peered out at me. I explained that something from his apartment was leaking and pouring down into my kitchen.

“Sorry,” he mumbled before shutting the door. That was my lone interaction with him until one day, when I opened the Village Voice to the music section and found a picture of the Crooner. He was, it turned out, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. In the same issue of the Voice was a review of one of my books, and apparently he saw it: a few days later, I passed him in the hall and we both stopped short and, for the first time, said hello. That was it. Just eye contact and a hello. An acknowledgment. Oh, so you’re that person.

By the late 1990s my beloved Lower East Side wasn’t squalid anymore. The once-vacant buildings had been scrubbed, the people selling books and bicycle parts from blankets spread on the sidewalk were replaced by sandwich boards hawking gourmet foods. The Key Foods on Avenue A no longer required the full-time services of rent-a-cops to stop the shoplifting junkies. There were no junkies. They had all died or moved, migrating to the outer boroughs or to cities that were still sordid, like Baltimore or Philadelphia. Tompkins Square Park was now a clean, safe place where white women with small children gathered and purebred dogs frolicked in the dog park.

I hated it.

I decamped to Brooklyn, to an apartment in the tiny cobblestoned Vinegar Hill neighborhood just north of Dumbo, where brothels had once thrived in the still-intact storefronts along Hudson Avenue. Two blocks away from my new digs were the Farragut Houses, a housing project that, for a while at least, deterred developers. After moving to Vinegar Hill, I learned that my novelist friend Donald Antrim had lived in that very apartment a few years earlier. The city had a way of entwining us around one another, throwing us all together, stacking us one on top of the other, shuffling us, making us begin friendships or collaborations or romances. Or sometimes we just noticed each other, nodded once in recognition, moved on.

From the window of my home office, I could see one of the towers of the World Trade Center. That morning, my then-boyfriend John and I heard a sort of muffled boom. A few minutes later, a neighbor came and told us the World Trade Center was on fire. We walked to the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, went up onto the walkway, and saw hundreds of people pouring across the bridge, fleeing Lower Manhattan. Some were covered in ash. Everyone kept looking back, eyes wide, at the burning towers. Then the first tower collapsed. A wail rose from the crowd. People started screaming prayers up to the smoke-filled sky.


That night, Lower Manhattan, blanketed in debris, smoky, silent, lightless, looked like a disaster movie set. John and I had ridden our bikes over the Manhattan Bridge. It was so soon after the collapse that barricades had not yet been erected. I didn’t even know that a firefighter friend was dead, that another had survived, that my friend Judy had been ten minutes late for work at Morgan Stanley and thus not in the building when it was hit.

The streets surrounding the giant pile of death were empty and quieter than any quiet I had ever heard in New York. People in hazmat suits were tromping around in a daze. The air was smoky, and there was a thick coating of ash over everything. It didn’t occur to us that we were breathing in dead people, including some that we knew and cared about.

In the ensuing weeks, I imagined that New York would go wild again, that the rich would flee, infrastructure would crumble, the populace would grow restless, manic, and inspired. Graffiti would come back; punk would be born all over again. Quite the opposite happened. For the few tired souls who did leave after 9/11, replacements arrived, buying real estate, spreading the gentrification so that soon much of Brooklyn was overcrowded and expensive and large parts of Queens too.

Around this time, I started taking longer and longer bike rides, pushing into the far reaches of the outer boroughs, looking for still-untamed pockets of my city. I was location scouting. For books I was writing or would write. For images of the city to burn into my heart. I didn’t know it yet, but I was starting the long process of breaking up with New York.

Luc Sante, inspired chronicler of New York’s underbelly, wrote, “The more I felt I was losing my city the more preoccupied I became with it.”

That was it exactly.

I came to know every crevice of New York. I rode to the northernmost tip of Manhattan, to the then-end of the bike path, past the George Washington Bridge, and then across town to the Triboro Bridge where I rode over crack pipe shards and bird shit, down into Randall’s Island.

I rode my bike to Aqueduct Racetrack, where I would lose myself in the grandstands. Just a few thousand souls wandered the cavernous, faded facility that had been built to hold many more. Almost all these characters, of wildly varied economic and ethnic backgrounds, were men. I was a novelty. No one bothered me, but they noticed me. A man named Mohammed, who was allegedly a diplomat, thought that by virtue of my gender and relative youth I must be in possession of secret insights into the outcome of races. Sometimes I was. Once when Mohammed asked, “Who do you like in the finale?” I shrugged and indicated a fit, happy-looking gray horse named Napoleon Solo, whose odds were 60 to 1. The horse won. I was, for a day, the queen of Aqueduct Racetrack. At least as far as Mohammed was concerned.

I rode to Coney Island often, especially in winter. I loved the slumbering rides, their metal limbs sticking up from the earth like the skeletons of large birds. Fortune-teller stalls and balloon shooting games were shuttered, the only signs of life coming from nearby trailers encircled by chain-link fencing. Dogs, mostly pit bulls, roamed the small yards. I would stand staring at these beautiful muscular creatures, who didn’t bother with gratuitous barking, who simply looked at me, read my face, found no mal intent there, then looked away.

I rode to the home of the Federation of Black Cowboys, out at the edge of east New York, where Brooklyn butts up against Howard Beach, Queens. These cowboys (and some cowgirls) have a stable spread over a few acres on South Conduit Avenue, just before JFK airport. For a time, the overflow from the main stable found refuge across Conduit Avenue, in a cul-de-sac at the end of Dumont Avenue known as the “Hole.” There were a few ramshackle homes and, there, stretched along bumpy, ill-paved streets named for gemstones, row upon row of makeshift stables and miniature paddocks, horses poking their silky, benign noses over fences. My friend Cornelius, a member of the federation who kept his paint horse, Dalton, at the Hole, would find someone willing to loan me a horse and we’d go horseback riding, crossing Linden Boulevard, snaking our way through tracts of modest vinyl-clad houses. Crossing the Belt Parkway, we’d see the seriously startled faces of drivers as we made our way into Gateway National Park to ride along Jamaica Bay.

Sometimes I’d ride the bike out to Rockaway, across the Marine Parkway Bridge and to the water’s edge. The beach was exquisite, pristine even, and I seldom saw another human being. I could have been anywhere. But I was in New York. No matter how far I went, to the very end of the land, when I turned back, I was still in New York City.

As I rode toward home after these jaunts, everything crowded in on me: cars, people, garbage, noise. The whirring of humanity.

I started dreading the crowded subway, so I stopped taking it.

If I had to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I rode my bike. If the weather was too extreme for that, I stayed home. I mapped out a special route to walk my dog to the park, a route where there was some likelihood I would not encounter a single human being.

My world got very small. I barely ventured to concerts, hardly went to the Met to visit the paintings I loved. My city had become so crowded and bright I couldn’t think in it anymore, almost couldn’t see it anymore.

I’d been going upstate to the Woodstock area for years, and one day, on a whim, I called up a realtor friend and went to look at houses. I found a strange, fairy-tale-looking house made of brown wood with purple trim. It only had half an acre, but to me it was a universe, a lush world for my dog to explore, a place that I could study and figure out the way I had studied and figured out New York. The kind of enchantment I yearned for now was in learning the basics of human existence, living near forest creatures, stacking firewood, and growing vegetables. I wanted to write about people who could tell time just by looking at the position of the sun in the sky.

I had never imagined living anywhere but New York City until, one day, I did imagine it, and almost immediately I left the only home I’d known.

It was time to leave the noise and the bodies behind. Time for the kind of quiet that only happens deep in the woods, lost, craning my neck up to the sky to find my way.

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From Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving New York, published 2013.