Steve Cannon turned 75 the week before last. His birthday party was held at the Tribes gallery, his home since the 70’s, with readings by Karl Watson, Michael Carter, Shalom Naumen, and the ‘Unbearable’s book release party.
I got there late, after both the readings were over. The food trays picked clean, though half a box of wine remained. Steve was sitting on his living room couch in front of the apartment doorway, the same place I’ve found him almost every time I’ve gone to see him over the last 20 years. Drinking wine, smoking, and hanging out with the dozens of people pressed in around him.On the walls were the striking photographs of the GirlEye show curated by the gallery. Everyone was drunk. It was just like old times.
Steve comes from New Orleans originally, but he’s been in New York since the 70;s. He is a poet, playwright, and novelist, and was a long-time professor at CUNY until he retired in the early 90’s. In the 70’s, he had a bestselling novel: “Groove Jive & Bang Around”, which gave him the money to buy the building he lives in now. He is almost fully blind, and has been so for the last dozen years, the end result of glaucoma. He has people read his books and newspapers and emails to him, but still gets out to shows and readings. He has plenty of help around the studio, and many people drop by. I doubt he’s alone much.
When I first started going down in the early 90’s, the gallery was just starting up and Steve could still see, though he wore dark glasses, even at night. On warm days, he hung out on his stoop, and everyone he knew from in and around the neighborhood would drop by. Some days, you could get a reasonable cross-section of the Lower East Side of the time – young white bohemians like myself, old black poets
and writers who’d known Steve for decades, local Puerto Ricans, drug addicts. Many of the people around him were stalwarts of the 80’s Lower East Side writing music art drug scene. Some, like the poet John Ferris, had hung out in the political and writing scene in 60’s and 70’s Harlem.
I liked Steve and John and the other guys, and liked the connection to black NY history and art. Most of all, I liked to listen to them talk politics. They really knew their stuff, and in the self-referential, curiously parochial New York of the day, it was refreshing to talk with people who knew what was happening in what was left of the Soviet Union, Iraq, or Africa, unfiltered by the lens of the New York Times or CNN.
I had another connection with Steve: we’d both squatted in London, in roughly the same neighborhood, though 20 years apart – me in the late 80’s, Steve in the 60’s. I’d been in Westbourne Park, then virtually abandoned, Steve in Kilburn, the then Irish neighborhood in the north of the city. “We thought we were broke,” Steve said, “but there was a bunch of motherfuckers across the street – they had nothing at all! We were rich compared to them!”
By the mid-90’s, the Tribes gallery was becoming something of a local institution. Despite the glaucoma, Steve was involved in the rebirth of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, in the Living Theatre, and Bullet Space. His stoop, and his gallery became a popular hangout for a lot of kids arriving in town from Europe, Japan, across America. Bit by bit, I stopped going down.
But in a Lower East Side I hardly recognize, it’s good to see Steve, and his piece of history, still providing the conduit to the past.