Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
A Visit from a Ghost of Halloween Past
Haunted by memories of an old East Village friend who recently passed.
The East Village is hallowed and haunted ground for me. All told, in a few different apartments, I lived there for roughly a dozen years—key years, mostly from my late 20s through my late 30s. I think of it as the time during which I became "me."
The weekend before last, I returned there for the first time in over a year—and the first time since an old friend died in August.
I'd planned my whole trip around an outdoor karaoke event at Mama Tried in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which I ultimately, sadly never made it to. The weather that night wasn't horrible, but it was drizzly and the temperature had dropped to 50 degrees. Despite how overdue I've felt for a karaoke session since March of 2020, singing outside in those conditions didn't seem like an intelligent choice for a person still recovering her energy in the wake of mono. (This shit can really take forever.)
I'd also worn myself out earlier that day before it started raining, doing what I always do when I visit the city: I walked and walked and walked, mostly revisiting scenes from my past. Somehow, this well-worn nostalgia trip of mine never gets old. It actually feels essential to me, almost as if I'm reminding myself of who I am and the memories I'm made up of, now that I live two hours (and 16 years) away from that life, in an infinitely tinier city.
This time around, at just about every turn, I was confronted by the ghost of Pennel. He'd been such a force in my life, from the early 90s until he moved to L.A. in the later 90s. He was the Pied Piper of a group of friends I was tight with back then, always leading us around the city to see art and theater and sketch comedy and music. Sometimes he was the one performing. He knew everyone, and each weekend was hip to the best parties (and after parties, and after-after parties) downtown.
Last weekend, as I wended my way through "Alphabet City" (when I lived there you wouldn't be caught dead referring to it that way—it was the equivalent of calling San Francisco "Frisco"—but now people are calling it that again), I recalled a Halloween party Pennel invited me to in 1994, somewhere on 12th Street between Avenues B and C. It reminded me of the butterfly effect, and how much of an impact one person can have, sometimes even years after you stop actively being in each other's lives.
I'm not a huge fan of Halloween, so I had to push myself out the door that night. Pennel pushed me, too, and it only first occurred to me when I was back in the city this time that if he hadn't insisted I at least give the party a try, certain things wouldn't have later fallen into place. I waited until the last minute to come up with a costume, and wound up being a lame, unrecognizable version of Mary Richards. The "costume" was 95% a dumb beret I never otherwise wore, which I would throw up in the air whenever anyone asked me who I was trying to be.
The party was a rager in an enormous loft at the top of the building. It was a boisterous, rowdy crowd, and that's never my thing. I lost Pennel and the rest of the group we were with early on, and mostly stood on the sidelines observing. Then the whole thing got out of control. People were drunk and stoned and loud, throwing shit off the building's roof. A couple of fights broke out. The cops came twice. I wasn't into it at all, and so after hanging in there for about an hour so Pennel wouldn't give me shit for not even trying, I wandered into the room where everyone's coats had been collected on a bed, and prepared to leave. There was a guy sitting in there alone, jotting things down in a small notebook.
"Are you leaving?" he asked, as if he knew me.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm not really up for this."
"Me, neither he said."
He struck up a conversations—asked me what I did, and I told him I was a freelance journalist, mostly writing about the arts. (I neglected mention my day job as a reporter/editor at a home furnishings trade publication.) "Oh," he said, "then you should write about me."
I'd heard that so many times from so many self-absorbed people that at first I didn't take him seriously. But then he told me about something he was doing that was interesting: publishing the first serialized novel on the web, with hyperlinks to references embedded within the text. I wound up getting assignments to write about him for Rolling Stone and Paper Magazine. We became friendly, and kept in touch.
Many years later I'd attend a goodbye party at a bar for that guy and his then girlfriend—they were moving to another city. A year after that, the girlfriend would return to New York on her own, without him. The night after she arrived, over inexpensive sushi on East 4th Street, I'd inadvertently introduce her to her future husband and father of her child—another dear friend of mine, who I had the pleasure of seeing during my recent weekend visit.
As we walked from my crappy hotel on Houston Street to dinner on East 5th Friday night, I told my friend about how I'd been reminded of the wild Halloween party Pennel brought me to in October of 1994, and the chain of events that one night had set in motion. We were both awed by this realization:
There's a child in this world who would not exist if I had stuck it out a little longer at that terrible Halloween party, and only went to grab my coat in that room after the serialized-novel-on-the-web guy had left...
...or if I had gone with my first instinct that night, and skipped the party altogether, rather than let Pennel push me out of my Halloween funk...
...or if I'd never met and become friends with Pennel in the first place.
It's kind of astonishing when you think about it, and also a nice way to remember someone I've been grieving, who’d become lost to me in ways even before meeting his tragic end.
At the end of a postcard Pennel sent me when he first arrived in L.A., he wrote, “Me, I’m just trying to put a dent in the earth. Any minute now. Any…” He put some dents, alright. At least one, he never knew about, or could have predicted.
RIP, my old friend.