I Speak of the City: Fay Chiang

Fay Chiang

[Fay Chiang’s reading at Eth-Noh-Tec last week was some serious city poem goodness. Reading sections from her first book, In the City of Contradictions, Chiang gave some great first-hand account of New York’s Chinatown in the 70s. However, my favorite piece from the book and the reading is not a poem but a journal entry describing the formation of the Basement Writers’ space at 199 Lafayette Street. Chiang was able to secure the space for $800 a month, a hefty chunk of change even by today’s standards, but still had to shell out more monies to make the space usable. A meeting with a handyman by the name of Bimbo Rivas helps Chiang work out a lot more than just the electricity to the place. The story below will tell you the rest in more detail but I love that Bimbo and the father of Nuyorican Poetry, Jorge Brandon, make appearances in this journal entry. Bimbo and Brandon are some key figures in the Nuyorican Movement but it’s hard as hell to find anything written about them especially for a psuedo-historian like myself. So it’s good to find a story that speaks on how crucial they were not just to Nuyo Poetry and the Basement Workshop Writers but also to the history and art of their entire ‘hood.]


getting the electricity hooked up in the loft has been one experience; it
all started by calling chino who told me to get bimbo who hooked me up
with angelo who ook days to reach and days to get up to the loft.

went down to 6th street the other night where bimbo was working with
rabbit, chino, louie and elsie, mixing cement to put cinderblocks into the
building windows Teatro was in the process of buying from the city,
fireproofing it from vandals. back and forth I walked from 6th street to
the stoop on 3rd street where angelo was waiting for the babysitter to
come and watch his two kids. finally by 2:30 a.m., bimbo came instead
to 199 to test out the electrical lines by flashlight, promising to come back
the next day with charlie, his licensed electrician friend to design new
electrical lines.

when we were in the loft, i said: bimbo, it scares me, this space and I told
him what other people had been telling me, that the space was too big,
that I needed people, not space. it was people that moved.

bimbo said: it’s all in the Dream. you’ve got to keep the Dream, honest
and pure and that if that was the focus, then it would work. that it was
going to take sacrifices and a lot of hard work. if you were afraid of
work, then you had nothing to fear and there will be people who will
tell you you are crazy and all kinds of ugly things for all kinds of reasons,
but if you feel that it’s time, then put everything into the Dream,
there’s no holding back. he says: fay, look here you can start some small
industry to pay the rent or have parties. that’s it, we’ll come help you
raise the rent money. what is $800?1 many things will happen.

then i asked him how he had come to be a poet. he said he had gone to
CCNY, got his M.A. working under a fellowship, with 11 years at the
Transit Authority at night and making 20,000, raising a family. But it
was time to put all that aside and to work on his dream for Teatro. he
has heard about jorge brandon, a sign painter who kept a storefront
on pike street and read poetry in the streets, this old man. the two
challenged the other to a duel and tried to outread the other on 6th
street while people threw things at them from windows above to try to
shut them up and they went on for hours till finally it was a draw.

jorge started training bimbo by sitting in a bathtub through two
months of summer while bimbo was working on his and margie’s
apartment. talking about writing, about a vision of theater for the
people, all through the summer he talked and bimbo wrote. then
jorge officially named bimbo a poet and they got a storefront on
6th street. el coco que habla, a prophet, a poet, el teatro ambulante.

bimbo said he came to a decision to quit his job, the security. he sat
down with his family and his older daughters said. yeah, daddy, we’re
behind you. so he says, you know, fay, it comes to 14¢ an hour, but
we have to do it. we have to give it a try. go for broke. and if we make
mistakes, at least we would have tried, learned from it.

walking back to 6th street with bimbo, carrying a pailful of tools for
chino and the work on the building, I told bimbo I felt much better
having talked with him, and he said, you know the way, “they” had it,
we were never meant to meet and here we are!

on 6th street at 4 in the morning, people from teatro ambulante, charas,
4th street i were frying slated fish, pancakes on cinderblocks, warming
hands, bodies from the flames, continuing the work.

I left waling down first avenue beading back to the loft, thinking and
thinking about the Dream of Basement Workshop: an asian american
cultural center with music, dance, pictures, the words to be written,
oral histories and stories to be told and made by little children, youth,
old people, men and women my parents age. working, learning, and
laughing with all kinds of people from many parts of the city, the
country, the world in this part of the universe, this lifetime. there are
too many people too broken down to have dreams and risking dreams
and visions, yet if we don not have the visions, then what is the use of all this,

we must feed the Dream.

© Fay Chiang from In the City of Contradictions