Writers and theater and Gangsters, Oh My!
Times Square is probably up there with one of the most famous of squares in the world, perhaps challenged by Red, Tianamen and Hollywood Squares. (Anyone remember that show?)
Times Square is known for New Year Eve, for the New York Times, it used to be known for prostitutes, heroin and strip clubs. It’s known now for Disney. David Letterman, lots of hotels. Hundreds of thousands of tourists.
We’ve been both fascinated and horrified by Times Square, but we found it irresistible as we constantly kept discover more literary treasures in that area that were getting lost- literary artists who it turns out created and personified that indelible, mythic quality of New York City.
So we put together a tour. I think it’s root comes from a combination of a passion for Literary History, a desire to take back some of Times Square for New York and New Yorkers, and also a need for some new bars to drink at. And thus our tour was born.
It’s changed a lot over the last couple years we’ve worked on, and where it stands now is a route, collection of stories and a series of performances that put it on par with anything we’ve put together. We’re very proud and excited to share with you all.
We’ve really highlighted what was probably the most influential time in the area, the 1910’s-40’s when the really magic of Times Square and the Great White Way were born and thrived. From the creators of the iconic Broadway shows, the actresses and hostess of the Glamorous Prohibition Scene, the protests, the gangsters the rubbed noses with them all, and of course some Baseball.
We’ve succeeded in doing what we do best, capturing the spirit of the neighborhood, through the eyes of it’s writers and artists, and we can no instill that spirit back into ether, and keep that magic of New York City alive.
We look forward to having you come get lit with us in Times Square Very soon.
We here at the Literary Pubcrawl are not only tour guides and literary aficionados, we are also huge nerds. And what are nerds good for, if not overanalyzing the subject matter we hold near and dear? With that in mind, we have concocted the ultimate character test for our literary heroes— The Literature Death Match.
The rules are thus: each round, we will posit a scenario in which two literary characters must battle it out in a fight to the death, and based on their separate character merits, we determine who would win. Each character is assumed to be in their peak physical shape from their respective novels, all fights take place in a standard 25-foot by 25-foot boxing ring. Fighters may start unarmed, though if they manage to procure weaponry over the course of the battle, all the better.
It must be stated that these battles are of course hypothetical… no characters were harmed in our staging of these fights. After all, what kind of monsters would we be if we actively tried to kill Atticus Finch?
(Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
(On the Road, by Jack Kerouac)
First off, I know what you’re thinking: we are remarkably clever, and possibly over-fond of puns. But it is impossible to resist pitting Sherlock Holmes against another “Moriarty,” so here is our inaugural battle.
Now, at the outset, it seems obvious that this would be a fight that Sherlock Holmes could win. He has appeared in four novels and fifty-six short stories, matched wits with some of the most formidable foes of his day, including the KKK, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the Red-Headed League, and, of course, James Moriarty (no relation to his current opponent). The man has a superior intellect, enough to out-think almost any opponent, though he is ignorant on some practical matters, most notably not realizing that the earth revolves around the sun. These tiny blips of practical ignorance wouldn’t do him any damage on the battlefield, however. On top of that, he is well-versed in the fighting styles of singlestick, boxing, and swordplay.
Dean Moriarty, on the other hand, has a less-catalogued list of skills. Though he’s only appeared in the one novel , he is given a thorough description. We know him to be quite the con-man, so he is at least smart enough to survive by his wits, and given his intense personality he has probably gotten into more than a few bar fights, and probably talked his way out of half of them. He can park cars with blinding speed and great diligence. Like his opponent, Mr. Holmes, he is quite fond of substance abuse. Unlike his opponent Mr. Holmes, he is also quite fond of the ladies (and if the need suits him, the gentlemen), and by his own admission he is said to be an excellent lover. No ladies could be found to comment on his sexual prowess—his girlfriend Mary-Lou and his wife Camille both seem pretty well-shot of him, though Carlo Marx seems to enjoy him quite a bit.
Since Sherlock Holmes seems to have the advantage, Dean would have to employ some more subversive tactics in order to gain an upper hand over the legendary detective. Luckily, as evidenced by his exploits in On the Road, Dean can be incredibly manipulative and displays more than his share of sociopathic tendencies. Translation: he is willing to fight dirty.
With all this in mind, let the battle begin!
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Literature Death Match!
In the one corner, clocking in at 160 pounds and currently high on a mixture of alcohol, Benzedrine and cocaine, hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, we have the ultimate road-tripper himself, Mr. Dean Moriarty!
Annndd, in the opposing corner, at 180 pounds, wearing a dashing deerstalker hat coupled with red boxing shorts, from Victorian England, it is the great consulting detective himself, Mr. Sherlock Holmes!
The bell has rung, and fighters are now circling each other, seemingly trying to pick out strengths and weaknesses… this should work out reasonably well for Holmes, whose skill in deduction is second to none.
… Now this is an interesting tactic. Moriarty seems to have noticed the tracks on Holmes’ arm, and he’s pulling out of his pocket what looks to be a gram of coke, a spoon, and a needle! We sure hope that needle’s clean… He seems to be trying to convince Holmes to shrug off the fight in favor of getting high together, and I think I hear the words “seven percent solution” being bandied about. Could this fight be over before it even gets started?
But no, it seems that Holmes has shaken off this suggestion. The detective often employs singular focus when investigating a criminal case, it seems that he will be utilizing that same focus here tonight. Holmes will not be denied his victory… and Moriarty is falling back yet again, hoping to find another weakness to exploit.
Holmes has settled into a traditional English boxing stance, and seems to be waiting for Moriarty to make the first move. Moriarty throws out a right hook, expertly ducked by Holmes, and POW! Holmes has dealt the first blow, a direct punch to the face! Blood is flowing out of Moriarty’s nose. He seems to know that in terms of skill, Holmes outmatches him ten to one.
Moriarty has doubled over, giving Holmes the confidence to move in closer for a traditional blow to the kidneys. But what is this? It seems Moriarty was feigning, and used this momentary vulnerability to sucker punch Holmes in the crotch. Moriarty has brought some truly dirty fighting tactics into the ring with him! It’s an undignified move to be sure, but what else would one expect from a con-man out of the American West?
Moriarty follows up his dick punch with another punch to the face, and another! Ouch! That has to hurt. Holmes has pushed off Moriarty, bleeding profusely from a cut above his eye, and has now adopted a more defensive stance. He seems to be giving Moriarty another once-over, possibly falling back again on his legendary deductive skills.
Holmes is speaking to Moriarty, taunting him in some way or another. Can we get the mics turned up on this one?
“Your father left when you were very young, did he not? Judging by the lines on your face, the style in which you part your hair, and the prominent “I Miss Daddy” tattoo on your upper bicep, I would judge that you haven’t seen your father since you were approximately six or seven. That must have been a terrible blow.”
Dr. John Watson has stood up from his front-row spot in the audience and cried out in amazement. Moriarty seems to be lowering his arms a little, and if we look closely… yes, those are tears welling up in his eyes.
Watson is continuing to egg on Holmes, crying out repeatedly, “Finish him!” …You can see Holmes’ ego inflating from all the way back here in the press box.
It seems that Holmes has resumed his deductions yet again…
“…Furthermore, I can tell based on your stance and the extensive tension in your pelvis that you have a raging case of Chlamydia, most likely procured from a dalliance you had with a red-haired woman approximately three weeks ago. How are you holding up, Moriarty? Does it burn terribly?”
This is proving to be an excellent tactic. Moriarty is now weeping uncontrollably, and doesn’t even seem to have the energy to lift his fists in defense. As the crowd begins to boo him, he is actually starting to curl up in the fetal position.
Now strategically, this would be the perfect time for Holmes to finish off his opponent, but instead he seems to be taking this moment to revel in his own intellect. He’s stopped the match completely, walking over to Watson to explain in detail his deductions throughout the fight. Watson, as per usual, is looking on admiringly and taking extensive notes.
Frustratingly, the fight seems to sit at a standstill. While Holmes continues to wax poetic about his intellect, Moriarty is slowly trying to collect himself… he seems to have stopped crying, that’s a relief. And it seems he does have a plan to get back in fighting form—he’s taken out that gram of coke, that initial peace offering, and he’s cutting lines on the floor of the fighting ring. Holmes, his back still to him, doesn’t seem to notice a thing, though he has gone into a particularly long monologue about the polyester-rayon weave of Dean Moriarty’s boxing shorts, and how that is “bound to aggravate.”
… And Moriarty has bounced back to his feet in a cloud of white powder. It has doused his face in white splotches here and there, and he seems to be taken up by a madness.
Oh my! He has started screaming a high pitched war cry, and he’s running straight for Holmes! Holmes turns around, just in time to dodge what would have been a felling blow by Moriarty, and Moriarty bounces off the ropes and back into the ring.
Moriarty attacks with a left hook at Holmes, that one manages to connect…
Holmes dodges another hook, and deals a glancing blow to Moriarty’s shoulder…
Moriarty shakes it off, tries for a direct punch to the face…
Holmes gives a shove to Moriarty, sending the sky-high madman reeling back a few paces--
Holmes gestures to Watson, shouting for his saber. With complete understanding and speed, Watson tosses Holmes not a sword, but what seems to be a long wooden dowel rod.
… Ah! We have just been informed that this is the weapon traditionally used in the British Martial Art of Singlestick, also known as Cudgels, of which Holmes happens to be a master. This might just turn the tide of the battle.
Moriarty, seemingly not even noticing the new weapon in play, makes another crazed run at Holmes.
…And Holmes bats him about the head one—two—three times, knocking him to the ground!! Watson is roaring in support!
Holmes snaps the wooden rod in half over his leg. Finally, he seems to be giving up the traditional fighting styles.
Moriarty makes a half-hearted attempt to rise from the floor, and Holmes takes the opportunity--
AND RUNS HIM THROUGH WITH THE SHARP END OF A STICK!
Dean Moriarty, the free-wheeling king of the road himself, sinks to his knees, and begs to see his friend Sal Paradise one last time. Sal, however, is too busy, typing in the back room on an old Underwood.
Dean’s second dying wish, however, is handsomely rewarded. Somebody finds him a fifth of whiskey, and he downs the entire bottle before he finally expires, a drunken smile on his face.
We looked for Holmes to do a post-fight analysis, but he could not be bothered… instead he stayed ensconced in his chair, explaining to Watson every deductive method he employed during the battle.
One of the running jokes we’ve had on our tour over the years is how any piece of literature that is dirty or offensive, gets banned, gets a lot of criticisms for obscenity or lewdness….well they tend to sell very well. This continues to be tried and true.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg,
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s a Few Figs from Thistles
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (still often on the top 10 most banned books in the last decade)
It kind of goes on and on. In fact our running gag is saying if you want kids to read literature, forbid them from doing so. Put Shakespeare on the highest shelf, tell them there’s too much sex and violence, that they are not allowed to read it. They’ll have it memorized.
I’ve often wondered, had I been a high school English teacher, what if I assigned a Free Reading book- students choice, put a big list of books on the chalkboard and then clearly and succinctly inform them they were in no way whatsoever allowed to pick any book or author on that list….would they read them? Obviously wouldn’t put that in for the assignment, but could you actually influence kids to read more literature outside of the curriculum this way?
Several years back we did a tour for 120 high school kids. Obviously we did not go to bars (well, the guides did afterwards to commiserate, but not on the actual tour). We broke them up into 4 groups and walked them through the village.
They were hands in pocket-eye-rolling-heel-dragging bored about as much as a high school kid could be. (As a former high school kid, I can testify that we can get super bored). We reached an Edna St. Vincent Millay house, and on a whim I tried something. I said (approximately)
“Millay wrote a lot about feminism, she wrote a lot about female sexuality and lesbianism, about love affairs and…..oh geez actually I probably shouldn't be talking about this. Let’s keep moving, don’t tell you folks or your teachers, I probably shouldn’t have come here.”
And we continued the tour. At the end of the tour the chaperones came up and told me that almost every kid in my group asked them for the name of that poet, who it was that I was talking about.
So teachers, we already have a problem with kids and adults not reading. Why not? Give it a try? Forbid them from reading some great works, and lets see what happens. You might just reach a couple kids.
And then maybe they’ll come on our tour.
We get a little hashtag crazy on the tour sometimes. When we started 20 years ago, a hashtag was called a pound and it was of little use in the world. Sometimes it was useful after the transition from rotary phones to touch tone, but otherwise it was just 4 lines. We’re slowly getting savvier with ours. When we started posting the #weresearch, it was partially in response to the March 29th NY Post article entitled “Everything You Know About the Village is Wrong.” In it they discussed much of the standard fare of legends in the village that have been covered by tours over the years, that are incorrect. We were 100% accurate. Maybe 99.9%, I might need to go back and look.
We’d actually also debunked several other myths in the Village over the years that the Post did not mention. #weresearch
To be fair, there’s a lot of misinformation out there in legitimate sources. Mistakes can easily happen. We usually say right off at the beginning that there’s as much legend as fact on the tour. Stories change over time. It’s been scientifically proved that our memories are unreliable. A bartender tells a customer, who goes back a year later and tells her cousin, she mentions something to a young writer for a guide book….with each retelling the story changes.
We started trying to find the root of the story. We started to dig, and thus the collection expanded. This isn’t even all of them. I’ve ordered several more since these pictures were taken.
You can see that 20 years of Greenwich Village history is 20 years of collecting books. What interests me is that many of these discuss the same stories in much the same way. Which has me wondering how many other legends still have mysterious roots? How many of these books reference each other that the actual story has been lost. Or never happened.
To quote one of the greatest TV shows ever made: The Truth is Out There.
(That was X-Files if you didn’t get the reference). We’ll still keep digging. We promise. If you come drinking, we’ll keep talking but we’ll also keep digging. One day you’ll have a drink with us and learn the truth. I relish that day. And I relish the process.
That’s the passion we bring. Please come #getlitiwithus. (That is a hashtag that says Get Lit With Us. [it’s a double entendre. It means both get literary, as well as to “get lit” as in to “tie one on,” “get buzzed,” “become inebriated” or “intoxicated.” You get it.])
I hope you enjoyed my use of brackets and parenthesis.
I need a new book case.
Greenwich Village is not the same Village from when we started. Certainly not a new dilemma, and change is not new to the city. But, perhaps because we are biased, we feel the changes much more deeply now.
When we began in 1998, the village was edgy. It was still possible to find affordable apartments. It was in transition, but it was still a vibrant community that was in touch with it’s roots: art, sub culture, music, creativity, writing, theatre.
There are still hints, but it’s tucked away as the Village rapidly evolved into a high end, homes of the Hollywood East Coast, corporate elite, reality stars….
Classic case in point, it went from being the neighborhood you moved to Because of Chumley’s, and now it’s the neighborhood that aggressively fought the re-opening of Chumley’s.
From 2000-2001 we watched as every week another mom and pop, local store on Bleecker Street was closed down, sat empty for awhile, and re-opened as a high end boutique. We watched as restaurants closed down and remained empty for years- all due to the tax benefit gained by staying empty and demanding higher rents, rather then renting at potential market value.
As one Village resident wrote: The Times They are A’Changing.
And yet through it all the Village maintains its magic. Much of this is due to the re-zoning as an historic neighborhood, and the constant vigil of groups like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It’s kept it’s magic via the few bars, restaurants and clubs that almost stubbornly persist- generally by being fortune enough to own the buildings they reside in rather than pay rent.
And we’d like to think it’s kept alive by the work we do. We’re not just churning out legends and story highlights that populate all too numerous neighborhood guide books. We’re constantly digging deeper. But more importantly; We want you to be inspired. Inspired to read, inspired by their innovation and spirit, we want you to feel that spirit and energy. We want you to hear the words alive. We want you to read the books, listen to the albums, support the artists. We want one of you to revolutionize literature as we know it.
We want to spend a little time together as we all share the spirit, energy and artistic magic that shaped so much of the neighborhood, city and nation.
And thus, we stubbornly persist as well. And we hope you’ll come see why, or come see why again. #getlitwithus
Journal Entry: March 3rd, 2018
I’m sitting in the White Horse Tavern right now waiting for our guests to arrive before Danielle and I lead yet another crawl around Greenwich Village. I’ve been coming here for about 14 years doing the tour and I always sit to the right of the door facing the bar. To the right of the bar as you walk in sit a group of regulars. I’ve actually been coming here so long I’ve seen a nearly total swap out of regulars! Although Bob the bartender has only missed a few days in the last decade and a half. He’s nearly as constant as the building itself. The beer here is never too fancy nor too basic. Definitely solid choices and the IPA has my name on it every time. That and a cheese burger and curly fries are how I fuel the next three hours walking around one of the most densely historic places in America.
The second bar we go to is the Kettle of Fish. A great bar. A Wisconsin bar that is too packed to enter when the Badgers or Green Bay is playing football. Terry the bartender has been the Saturday guy since I’ve been guiding tours and has spent his whole life in the village. Here is where I’ll have a Lil’ Wisco to bring into the back by the couches or next to the dart boards. A toast or two and we begin threading stories of three historic bars that have inhabited the spot hopefully in the time it takes everyone to finish their beer. There’s a cocoon-like quality inside that has a separation from the rest of the world and when we finally leave Kettle, it’s always too bright when you hit the sidewalk again.
Last bar we go to is Marie’s Crisis Cafe. Another bar below street level. I usually switch to gin and tonics here as the beer selection is a bit limited but then again, you don’t come here for the beer. Mike is the Saturday bartender and I love that I don’t have to say what I’m drinking anymore. It’s a nod and a thank you and I’m back to the group with two more toasts. My favorite story here is of Thomas Paine and...well...you just need to come on the tour because if I get started talking about him here, this blog will keep you up past your bedtime. It’s fun to stick around Marie’s after the tour ends for two reasons: One is the piano accompanied singing. Mostly show tunes sung by the regulars with the occasional famous film or stage star sighting. And two for a chat with Johnny. It’s always gonna be an interesting night when Johnny is in attendance.
Oh hey! I gotta go. People are starting to arrive for our tour and we gotta get situated in the back. Hope to see you here.
Like any great athlete or artist, as a Literary Pub Crawl Guide there is a lot of prep, practice and training to get yourself into the ideal shape to lead a crowd of history buffs, literary lovers, and cultural explorers who like to enjoy a well-crafted beverage.
Every guide has their own routine, but here’s what I have perfected as the perfect Literary Pub Crawl Guide Experience
Remember, your guides are trained professional drinkers and talkers. They’ve sculpted their own multi course experience, but as an attendee you need to trust your own judgement.
Guides have been known to get smarter, sexier and more charming the more you drink, this could be both amazing and dangerous. Use caution.
As we are approaching our 20th anniversary, it’s easy to start reflecting on all the ways we’ve grown, changed over the years, to wax nostalgic for the good old days (not sure why waxing has to be involved but I don’t make the rules).
From our humble roots as a small theatre company looking to fund our first NYC production of Romeo and Juliet…(wait I’m not sure humble works here. We had a ton of egos. Filled with them. Bravado, ego, high artistic ideals). But we were small….So our small roots as a small theatre company… (that’s not very eloquent). Modest roots? (nope)
Ok scratch that last paragraph altogether. We were a theatre company. The New Ensemble (TNE). One of thousands of small Off Off Broadway companies in NYC. (Off Off Broadway got it’s start in Greenwich Village, BTW). The first production of Romeo and Juliet applied some simple, creative and theatrical elements to make it a very accessible and compelling production. The vestiges of that show can still be seen in some of the future creative endeavors of that production team.
As the members of TNE moved on to different cities, careers, started families.. the tour joined up with Bakerloo Theatre Project, and their summer residency in upstate NY. Bakerloo had been around for a few years, and once again the tour funded some fantastic and creative storytelling for several years.
Both The New Ensemble and Bakerloo Theatre Project shared a similar theme: a passion for the text, the written word. For the poetry of Shakespeare, for promoting new playwrights, for small readings of great works of literature. The acting, the directing, the story telling were all top notch, but the focus on the text was primary.
As Bakerloo relocated to Pittsburgh, and many of it’s members moved on to new cities, careers and started families (a theme!) the Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl remained. And grew. There are still guides who were members of both The New Ensemble and Bakerloo Theatre Project.
And our passion for the text, the writers and those inspirations remain. Our guides stay involved because we love to recite the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas…we love turning people on to writers like Djuna Barnes and Dawn Powell. Hearing the rhythms of Kerouac’s prose in pubs he frequented helps bring his work to life- whether you love him or hate him the work resounds.
This passion is what has kept us in business. We’re not just another tour. This is not a job for people who are tired of waiting tables. Our guides have careers, they perform, they teach- they have their lives the lead, but they keep involved with us for the passion and the material.
It shows. It’s why we’re hear 20 years in, it’s why we are one of the most inspiring tours in the city. You’ll hear it in our performances, in our readings, as we bring this great literature alive in one of the greatest cities in the world.
And we’ll have a drink with you while we do it.
Hope to see you soon. Thanks for your support. See you on the tour! #getlitwithus
by Miranda Knutson
Recently on a Brooklyn Heights tour our group exclaimed excitedly when they saw a memorial plaque for the Walt Whitman Park down by Cadman Plaza. We explained the irony of how by clearing this area’s housing for the park, the city destroyed the building that housed the Rome brothers printing press where Walt Whitman first published his seminal work, “Leaves of Grass”.
Whitman was known for his bohemian lifestyle and his love of Brooklyn, so imagine my surprise when I pulled into a rest stop off the New Jersey Turnpike to go to the Walt Whitman Service Station. As you walk in, smelling the mix of fried chicken from Roy Rogers and pure liquid sugar from Cinnabon, you find on your left a faded picture of Walt Whitman. He is smiling sardonically and looking hip while across from him is a bright new photo of Chis Christie looking unsure and awkward.
Whitman’s photo is surrounded by a biography and two examples of his poetry. From this plaque, I learned why a small stop in New Jersey would be named after a person I inherently thought of as a Brooklynite. Whitman moved to New Jersey after the Civil War, first living with his brother, then purchasing a place in Camden. This is where he lived out the last years of his life, editing and re-publishing Leaves of Grass.
What would Whitman think of being memorialized in a large neon sign? Grandiose and colorful – well maybe he would love it. Fried food for the masses – not sure. This plaque (and we learn as tour guides to be wary of plaques) mentions how he called “Leaves of Grass” – “democratic literature commensurate with people,... simple and unconquerable.” I could see how Nathan’s Hot Dog stand could follow in the footsteps of that description.
“O you bedraggled neon signs,
O you golden arches,
With insidious oily saltiness, seeping into our pores.”
What do you think? What is the strangest, most commercial place you have seen memorializing a writer/artist?