The author–Winston Munford. Photo-Guerrilla Journalism
Over the next several weeks I will be publishing excerpts of chapters from my upcoming book “My Life on The Wild Side of The Music Business.” The story starts unfolding around the 1980s when New York City was a very different place as many of you who were around will remember—prostitutes walked freely on Times Square, which was still dotted with peep-show establishments and movie theaters that showed porn.
Mind you that’s not the focus of my book; I just brought it up to remind you that New York wasn’t always the way people know it today. Those of you who weren’t around yet or were still too young will get to taste a different New York City flavor from back in the day. You’ll learn about me and my friends and what became of them and what became of me.
I’d like to hear from you all as my story unfolds. You can post your comments on guerrillajournalism after ever segment of my story is published or you can reach me via email@example.com
Hopefully, at the end of our journey you’ll order a copy of my book or even come to a book signing. Well, here we go….
Chapter 1: “In The Beginning There Was Lots of Trash”
The roots of this story goes back many years but we will talk about that later. The start of my involvement in music as a business began in a garbage-filled basement in one of a pair of joined Manhattan apartment buildings with no heat or hot water that had been abandoned by the landlord.
My new business partner, Stanley, turned to me one day and said “I can build a theater here”.
I said “Oh Yeah?”
“Yeah” he said.
“If you can do that, how do we start?” I asked.
“We start by hauling out the garbage” was his reply.
We started hauling out the garbage. There was plenty of it. The basement had been the storage area for the buildings’ thirty-five families for decades. It was like a landfill. There were broken down baby carriages, used car and truck tires, broken tables and chairs, cracked toilet bowls and anything else you can think of. We were past knee-deep in junk and
garbage. Some of you may remember buildings like that one, right?
The reason we had the guts to try to build a theater there was because we had already done what some people said we couldn’t do. Where have you heard that before? When I moved from the basement of a Harlem brownstone with no heat or hot water and holes in the floor, into this large apartment building, with no heat or hot water, I knew I was in
“big smoke”. My move was horizontal; it was not a move up.
All I had was a lot more water pipes than before, and with them, the same winter frost problems. The water pipes were still freezing and when water freezes, it expands, the pipes burst and we have flooding.
Water came down in torrents from the fifth floor all the way down to the ice-cold boiler in the basement. To fix this, you need a skilled plumber and warm weather, not to mention money. Licensed plumbers are not cheap! Yes, we had thirty-five occupied apartments here instead of four like in my old building. The average rent was about $45 dollars back in the 80s. Today, in Manhattan, people are paying $2,000 or $3,000 a month for the smallest and cheapest apartments. These two buildings I’d moved in owed substantial back taxes so it was no surprise that the landlord just ran away one day.
Add to this, some of our tenants were on rent strike; and you couldn’t fault them for doing this. By law you have to provide essential services to a building, but the law doesn’t ask how much money you have. That’s your problem to deal with. We found ways to do it. It took time, it wasn’t easy and any failures along the way could put us back where we started with our pipes freezing up again. Brrrrrr!
Oil is expensive and you have to keep it coming. Run out and the boiler just stops and turns into an icicle again. Then, add to this the fact that all of the tenants were not on our side. Before we started fixing up the building, we were all freezing and we were not talking to each other. Later, we started talking and getting to know one another. We even had the bright idea to start a tenants’ group.
But there were still people in the building that were trying to sabotage what we were trying to do. You know how it goes! There are folks that love to see everyone and everything fail. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were being assisted by folks working at Housing Preservation & Development, better known as HPD, a New York city agency with which we had a contract to rehabilitate then put the buildings back on the tax rolls. Unfortunately, HPD was determined to see us fail at any cost. The HPD folk didn’t care whether they used legal or illegal means.
There were many other attempts to make my life hell. At one point I was visited by the Postal Police and told to turn myself in to them at 9 a.m. the next morning. No, I hadn’t stolen a bunch of stamps from the post office. I found that one of the tenants had filed federal charges against me. I found that one of the tenants had filed charges against me saying I had stolen a check from her and deposited it into my personal bank account. During the Federal Investigation, it became clear that her two sons had given me the check to pay the rent due and I had deposited it into the bank account for the building that I had set up as the Court Appointed 7A Administrator.
The Postal Police had completed their investigation before approaching me and while interviewing me in their holding room, told me that based on their investigation, I belonged in Hollywood and, surprisingly, they were so very polite about it.
Another of our tenants, a well dressed senior citizen, who I think, should have known better, was also threatening me with legal action during this same time. She kept announcing to me and to everyone else that she was going to “turn me in to the Mayor”. She was my enemy and made sure that I could not forget it. This is how she thanked us for restoring the heat and hot water that she had gone so long without.
Then my brother David’s apartment was illegally rented out by HPD. I had rented it to him legally as I was the Court-appointed 7A Administrator of the building and I’d been approved by the tenants’ group through a vote. When he refused to be kicked out, my brother was arrested and jailed by the police.
My brother was a good dresser and a cop looked at him sitting in a police cell in his business suit and said, “What are you doing in here?”
Our lawyers soon got everything sorted out. We got my brother out of jail and we rode home in my air-conditioned Cadillac. That was the Lexus back then. When we got back to his apartment we found that all of his thousands of dollars worth of stereo and video equipment had been stolen. The cops never seriously looked into it in any meaningful way. The investigation should have started with HPD and the new tenants.
HPD wanted control by any means necessary. A new tenant HPD illegally installed into an apartment they somehow made available announced that he was going to take over the tenants’ group. Soon, he somehow seemed to be controlling the elected president of the tenants’ group. Our elected President had been the buildings super. He was a good man, but he had some weaknesses, like most if not all of us. This new tenant, I found out later, was giving our long-term alcoholic president some kind of street drugs and then, so the rumors said, got the junkie girlfriend who came in with him to spread her legs for him. It seemed that our long time bachelor president just couldn’t resist. Soon, he appeared to be under the control of a common street thug living amongst us.
This thug, knowing he couldn’t get me under his spell, decided to try another approach. I walked out of the building one day and found him standing outside with a golf club. I knew he wasn’t on his way to play a few rounds of golf. Sure enough, the minute we made eye contact, he was charging towards me with the club raised for a swing.
He swung and hit me, but it was a glancing blow. I ducked his next swings. I was unarmed and in a state of panic. I did manage to escape. I ran back into my first floor apartment and grabbed a metal pipe that I kept by the door then I ran back outside. We exchanged several blows, non lethal, or I wouldn’t be here some 35 or so years later. I finally won because he ran off. He wasn’t finished with me. I think he was trying to fulfill his contract with HPD. He waited to fight another day.
What if he had crushed my skull with that club and killed me? Maybe HPD would’ve helped him beat a murder rap? Maybe by falsifying records or paying cops to lie? How did I get into a life and death struggle over a couple of raggedy falling-apart buildings built over swamp land? Those were the thoughts I had.
But let me get back to the part about the garbage though. So here I am with my new business partner, Stanley standing in a garbage heap and talking about building a theater in the middle of all this madness. We were hoping to turn all this crap into gold. Maybe we were mad too. The Sanitation Department folks complained whenever we put out too much trash on the curb. It took a long time, maybe two or three months, but we did it. We’d managed to get all of the garbage out.
I still remember how proud Stanley and I felt after all the garbage was finally gone and we’d mopped the floors that just a few weeks ago had dog shit all over it.
Something magical happened along the way. The word got out about the goings-on in the basement. People started giving us a hand or dropping off things.
I’m talking about tables, a couple of chairs and some other things. Things that they didn’t need from their homes. I’d come down, or my partner would come down to work in the basement, and we’d find beatup tables, chairs, whatever, even lumber and once, several bags of cement. We used the cement to level the floor and we painted it when somebody donated some grey paint.
Folks can do a lot in this world. Sometimes somebody just has to start.
As the word continued to spread we started meeting more and more people, all from the neighborhood. In this down-and-out drug-infested chunk of New York City, directly across the river from Yankee Stadium in upper Manhattan, we discovered musicians, poets, dancers, and all kinds of theater folk that had no opportunity to do their thing.
Maybe in a way, we looked a little bit like a Christmas Tree to some of them and they started to feel that they too could become part of a theater. The neighborhood was getting down with us.
A guy with electrical skills came in and so did a plumber. The electrician had some beatup stage lighting. Nothing fancy, just a long rectangular black box with some circular holes cut in it. Some different colored jells covered the holes from the inside. He hoisted it above the stage we had built with the donated lumber and whatever else we could scrounge up. The plumber got the toilet to flush!
No two tables were the same, no two chairs were the same. Who cared? Someone found some red-and-white checkered tablecloths and then some small glass bowls with candles in the bottoms. We lit them and guess what? In front of my blinking eyes a theater appeared!
It looked like one of the many clubs and jazz joints I had often frequented downtown in New York’s Greenwich Village. My partner was right. We could, and did build a theater with the unsolicited help from people in the neighborhood.
We’d turned all that trash into gold.
End of excerpt 1 from “My Life In The Music Business.”
Copyright 2017 All Right Reserved By Winston Munford