Let’s pretend it’s your first time visiting New York City. And let’s also say that you have absolutely no idea where to eat on your first night in town, but you’re starving. Finding yourself (somehow) on the Lower East Side with a rumbling stomach, you arrive at the corner of Houston and Ludlow (205 Houston, to be exact). An old school neon sign running down the side of a brick building proclaims that you are in front of Katz’s Delicatessen – a NYC institution which serves up (according to wiki) 12,000 hot dogs and 10,000 pounds of pastrami each week. Yep – you read that correctly. Weekly pastrami consumption is high in NYC and Katz’s is the go-to place.
There are many things I could tell you about the deli itself. I’ll limit myself to this: you MUST take a ticket at the door. This small green slip of paper is your meal ticket for delicious foodstuffs. Lose/misplace your ticket, and it’s a strong possibility that you’ll be subjected to a hefty “lost ticket fee” ($50.00!)
Katz’s is one of the go-to places for mail artists; stories circulate through the Network of impromptu Ray Johnson meetings with friends and artists at Katz’s (Johnson lived right around the corner for awhile, so it was a convenient meeting spot). I asked mail art troubadour/guru The Sticker Dude about how Katz’s had ended up becoming a mail art watering hole – he had the perfect answer.
“Well, there are three things about Katz’s that make it perfect for mail art get-togethers.
There’s a pretty large back section, where you can scoot a bunch of tables together and settle down to work…
Nobody’s gonna hassle us; the staff pretty much leaves you alone. So if we get kinda loud and crazy, it won’t be a problem.
And it just makes sense to come here. It’s like part of the continuity of the whole Network thing, what with Ray Johnson and all.”
So: Mail Art Mayhem took place on October 3rd, 2011. Frantic Ham (Red Fox Press/Francis and Antic Ham) were the first to arrive, and secured the perfect table for our group. Other mail artists slowly filtered in, grabbed their green tickets, and mingled. Who was in attendance? Mail artists The Sticker Dude, Mark Bloch, Robin Go, and E. Schaffer , poet Steve Dalachinsky, and artist L.J. Lago. As mentioned above, Francis and Ham of Red Fox Press and oh yeah – Red Letter Day!
It didn’t take long to break out the rubber stamps, envelopes, and postage…
…as well as a glossy photo of our mentor for the eve.
Hot dogs, beer, addressing envelopes and socializing – we were all in our element. And after a fair bit of time had passed, the Dude felt that a song was in order.
If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting The Sticker Dude in person, you know that he is a walking wonder, one fearless storyteller in his own right. At this particular gathering, the group was treated to the Dude’s “Vincent Van Gogh” – a song of Homeric proportions which chronicles the story of a single Van Gogh painting, while pointing out that society certainly didn’t regard the artist as “all that” while he was alive. By the time the song ended, most of the deli patrons were all ears.
At the end of the evening, Von Span suggested that we gather together for a “school portrait” of sorts. So we did, complete with goofy expressions and wide eyed grins. It was hard to say goodbye, even though we knew that we should probably wrap up the evening. But the festive atmosphere was hard to let go of.
At this point, I have to give a special shout out to Mark Bloch, who kindly offered to show Von Span, Robin, and me around the Lower East side – specifically, Ray Johnson’s old apartment. We headed around the corner and stood in the growing darkness, as Mark regaled us with tales of being neighbors with “New York’s most famous unknown artist”.
My evening was complete. I was happy, from tip to tail.
The rest of the trip passed by in a blur; there were only 24 or so more hours to be spent in NYC. Being away for so long made me realize that it had been too long – why had I let so much time pass in between visits? Walking down tree-lined sidewalks with cabs winging along Lexington Ave, I could feel the streets humming with energy, a certain vibe that is far different from west coast cities. Heading out to JFK, I promised NYC I’d return in a jiffy, that I wouldn’t be a stranger.