1995, Summer - Life in Hell's Kitchen

From This Might Be A Wiki


Summer, 1995
Life in Hell's Kitchen

In May of 1984 I got a new, better job working in a darkroom and moved from a grim section of Park Slope in Brooklyn to Hell's Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan. My roommate was the landlord's half-Greek son Chris, who had once played in a band with Flansburgh called the Turtlenecks.

Chris was also the building's super and he and I spent a few days cleaning out several of the apartments. One of them contained all the possessions of an Eastern European couple that had lived there right up until they died, so many of the things we removed were the accoutrements of the last days of a person's life, which was kind of disturbing. Some of the records they left were instant favorites of ours, especially an album called "Polka Time" and a single called "Skinny Lena." Skinny Lena was an Italian song in 6/8 with a humorous verse in English and a staccato Bari Sax riff. At some point I figured out a way to make the record skip in 4/4 during the riff while the 45 was played at 33, which became the repeating figure on TMBG's recording of Flansburgh's "Number Three."

The apartment we were moving into was formerly occupied by a bohemian playwright who had long since stopped paying rent and split town, but according to the city's laws which strongly protect the rights of tenants, the guy couldn't be evicted without being served an eviction notice, though that was nearly impossible. We had to clean out the whole place without throwing anything away, including such objets d'art as a bird cage with a little boy doll head perched on the swing, and some oddly dressed mannequins. The apartment had also become a luxury hotel for roaches and mice, especially the kitchen, where the tenant had nailed up rotten wooden slats to decorate the walls. The amount of dust everywhere was incredible. Chris and I nearly choked to death pulling the slats down, and at one point he proposed turning on the vacuum cleaner and leaving for the weekend. "There is only a finite amount of dust here. Eventually it will all end up in the vacuum," he theorized.

Across the hall from us lived Chris C. and Donna, Donna produced television shows and Chris C. played in many bands, including James White and the Blacks and his own band, the Special Jellies. Downstairs was Alistair, some of the Spanish novels I owned were his translations. One day Chris's sister was visiting Alistair and while he was out she gobbled up a plate of brownies from his refrigerator. Later, unaware that she had consumed a week's supply of the elderly translator's hashish, she looked at herself in the mirror and asked, "am I there?" Also downstairs was fun-loving Todd, who we sometimes ran into at the Pyramid Club, where Flans and I were some of the only performers who weren't into cross-dressing, and Syd Straw, who many years later toured with TMBG and sang with us on the Tonight Show, but as far as I knew at that time she was just Todd's gregarious friend Sydney who wore a stunning cowgirl outfit.

That summer Chris and I were joined by Marc, a cosmopolitan Swiss guy who had a complete grasp of the New York club scene the moment he arrived. More mundane aspects of American culture eluded him, however. I told him that in our country everyone goes to the bathroom twice, first you go to the bathroom and then you go to the bathroom. He looked blank for a minute, and then his girlfriend explained it to him in German, and then they both shrieked with laughter. One morning later that year I found Marc sitting in the kitchen by the radio, looking puzzled. "John," he said, "who is zis Rudolph ze red-nosed reindeer!? Never have I heard of zis."

Another guy who stayed with us for awhile was Dumas, who had just written Nina Hagen's big hit "Universal Radio." I thought I knew what he was all about until one day when we were looking at a map of New York State and he pointed at Attica and said, "I was locked up there!"

"You were in Attica Prison?" I asked.

"Yeah. I killed my mother."

Then there was an unpleasant silence as the plausible information sank in, broken by one of the Swiss women in the room whispering, "Vat did he say?"

"Just kidding. Heh heh," said Dumas.

Chris and Chris C. began a dance-music project with a Greek singer named Anna who performed in the Greek neighborhood of Astoria, and Chris named it Annabouboula, which in Greek means something like "confusion" or "nonsense." Chris also made up a Greek trans-lation of "Number Three," which became probably the longest running unfinished TMBG project of all time. In 1991 we recorded the basic tracks for the Greek version, but the vocal has still [April '95] not been recorded.

Our first "release" came out in late 1985, a flexible plastic record like the ones that you used to get as ads in magazines, containing "Everything Right is Wrong" and "You'll Miss Me." We sold the flexi-discs, or "Wiggle Diskettes" as we called them, by mail order out of my Hell's Kitchen apartment, which we referred to as the They Might Be Giants Building, and also gave them away at shows. During the three years I lived there Flans and I came up with much of the material for our first two albums, with the exception of "Ana Ng," which I wrote in Jonathan Gregg's apartment a month after I moved out of Hell's Kitchen. Looking back, that period seems like a time of hand-to-mouth poverty and wretched living conditions, and yet I mostly remember it with a kind of senseless fondness and affection.