In the 1980s, artist Candy Jernigan collected detritus from the streets of the East Village. For her piece Found Dope 2, currently hanging in the new Whitney Museum, she collected 308 crack vials and their colorful caps, along with a map of the streets where she found them. She recorded the location and the time of collection.
"The first day I went out," she told New York Magazine in 1989, "I picked up 70 caps. If I was going anywhere, even to the store to buy milk, I'd pick them up."
Wrote New York, "Neighborhood kids whom dealers employed to recycle discarded vials were not happy with Jernigan." They sometimes chased her down the street.
Found Dope 2 is a meticulous archive of a despairing moment in East Village history.
I remember those colorful caps, on those same streets, sprinkled like confetti under the trees. I never fail to think of them when I walk on East 2nd Street.
I remember when they began to disappear, too. It was a sign of something new coming--and it wasn't sobriety and redemption.
When I think of that grim confetti and my attendant feelings, I think of this Adam Gopnik quote: "People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don't end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings, and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter."
I'm not sure I agree--or disagree. Something here is not understood. (And what are the "normal things" about which one is supposed to be sentimental?) There is something still to get at. I can't quite put it into words.
Earlier in the essay ("Through the Children's Gate"), Gopnik paraphrases the querulous nostalgic: “What happened to all that ugliness, all that
interesting despair, all that violence and seediness, the cabdrivers in
their undershirts and the charming hookers in their heels? This is
standard-issue human perversity. After they gentrify hell, the damned
will complain that life was much more fun when everyone was running in
circles: Say what you will about the devil, at least he wasn’t
antiseptic. We didn’t come to hell for the croissants.”
Nostalgie de la boue gets a bad rap. But what if we look at it not as a longing for the lost thing itself--a crack vial, on its own, is not a loveable object--but as a response to the current moment? Maybe it's a psychic resistance to what is. A refusal to accept the anticepticism of the day. Perversity? Sure. Freud said the pervert both "rejects reality and refuses to accept any prohibition." The pervert attacks reality and fights for a different one, less boundaried and ruled. Not so normal.
New York needs more perverts.