An Interview with Luc Sante

Stephen Johnson
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“In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.”

Writer Luc Sante’s relationship with New York has always been difficult. The above reflection is from the essay “My Lost City,” which laments the loss of his gritty, animated home city, a place that has all but disappeared in recent decades.

Sante’s best-known book, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, is a cultural history of dark New York between 1840 and 1900 culled from police gazettes, photographs, and accounts of legend, anecdote, incident, and eyewitness. The book colorfully documents New York’s immigrant-strewn floor of overflowing tenements, thieves, whores, murderous saloonkeepers, and the wild days and nights of the Bowery—the city then was a raucous, rabid breeding ground for modern New York. Notably, Low Life unsentimentally portrays the underclass of New York as they actually lived, not as a people marching toward a glorious industrial revolution—but like rats forces to battle disease, teeming garbage, and corrupt politicians. (Sound familiar?) Still, Sante shows that people had their fun and entertainment—it may have been dirty, but at least it was lively.

Luc Sante has an eye for the forgotten, the weird, the lost, and the disappearing. The tenements where he lived on the Lower East Side in the seventies inspired him to see not just decay, but New York’s mummified past. With Low Life and other writings about the city, Sante became known as a sharp documenter of the unseen side of New York as the city raced toward development and gentrification in the eighties and nineties. Despite Sante’s fascination with the lost and obliterated, his writing is ruthlessly unnostalgic. At heart, he writes about inclusion, allowing for busted dreams, bad luck, wasted ambitions, sordid entertainment—the mayhem of actual life.

Sante now resides with his wife, writer Melissa Holbrook Pierson, outside the city and its discontents, where he teaches writing and photography upstate at Bard College, though he says that New York is always part of his consciousness. The Believer spoke to Luc Sante through a series of email exchanges.

—Stephen Johnson

THE BELIEVER: In the essay “My Lost City,” you describe 1970s New York as a place of danger, authenticity, personality, and color—a city for outcasts.

LUC SANTE: All I know about 1970s New York City is that it’s where I grew up, and you always have an umbilical connection to the time and place of your growing up. It was cheap, didn’t have too many people in it, you could go to the movies or whatever on the spur of the moment, you could get by without working too much and especially without involving yourself in the corporate world. It was a wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances, a sort of black pearl of world history, when New York City was at one and the same time both the apex of Western culture and the armpit of the Western world. So you had to deal with junkies now and then—I would far rather deal with junkies than with lawyers or developers.

BLVR: How can New York regain its personality? Or are we getting the city we deserve right now?

LS: The city we have now is the one we deserve, the coagulation of money. I’m very pissed off because I love cities and yearn for them, and I can’t live in them now—and not just because I can’t afford to. My ideal city is more like the city (New York and Paris come to mind, but it sort of applies to all) that existed up to and including the 1930s, when different classes lived all together in the same neighborhoods, and most businesses of any sort were mom-and-pop, and people and things had a local identity. The sort of city where—I’ve just been reading Richard Cobb on 1930s Paris—a burglar, a banker, a taxi-driver, an academician, a modiste, and a pushcart vendor might all fetch up together in a corner banquette at the end of the night. That won’t happen again unless we have some major, catastrophic shakeup, like war (at home) or depression, and do we want either of those?

BLVR: You’re writing a book about punk rock in New York in 1980, right?

LS: My book isn’t about punk or particularly about music, although it’s about roughly 1980 through 1982.

BLVR: What appeals to you about the city from 1980 through 1982?

LS: I’m interested in that time because the imaginary city in which I lived had to a certain extent become a real place, merging with the actual brick-and-mortar city of New York—and it was all about to change drastically. It was a tin-pot Last Days of Pompeii.

BLVR: After living here for so many years, what’s it like now for you to walk down the streets of the Lower East Side and the Bowery? Can you walk the streets without feeling like every historical and quirky fact you know is assaulting you?

LS: No, the historical and quirky facts have fled, or, rather, they’re in my first book, so they’re gone from me for good. What assaults me are the personal items: this is the last place I saw so-and-so alive, that’s where I had the screaming fight with X, there’s the location of the place I used to go when I was seventeen that made me feel as though life’s possibilities were limitless.

BLVR: I love the scene near the end of Low Life when you look up at a shard of sky on the Lower East Side that you imagine someone might have glimpsed one hundred years ago. I do that all the time in New York City and feel a weird connection to everyone who’s ever lived here. Something ghostly connects people to the city and its history, don’t you think?

LS: I think that’s true of all cities. Since I wrote Low Life, I’ve read Iain Sinclair on London and Louis Chevalier on Paris and I know that those kinds of occult bonds exist in spades in those places, especially since they’re much older.

BLVR: You’re general editor of the Library of Larceny, a series of books with titles such as Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial ConsMcGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler, and Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber. How did this series come about?

LS: It all began when I was searching for some enterprising editor to reissue David Maurer’s classic The Big Con. I launched my appeal in Salon, and Gerry Howard, then of Anchor Books, was enough of a sport to take up the challenge. When he moved to Broadway Books he had the idea of starting the line, since it was so obviously in tune with the zeitgeist.

BLVR: Who were these authors?

LS: Carlo Ponzi invented the Ponzi scheme, the perennially popular pyramid swindle. Willie Sutton was a bank robber who famously replied, when asked why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money was.” Danny McGoorty was not only a great San Francisco pool hustler, but a wonderful raconteur. Coming up in June we have Yellow Kid Weil, the canonical old-school swindler, and the passel of shnooks memorialized in A. J. Liebling’s priceless The Telephone Booth Indian.

BLVR: What’s the appeal to you of property criminals such as hucksters, card cheats, swindlers, bank robbers, and con men?

LS: They tend to use words in interesting ways. Also they work hard at living well without working, which is the unrealized wish of pretty much everybody.

BLVR: The criminals you’re attracted to seem to have a literary dimension, a psychological depth, an artistry to their criminality.

LS: I sometimes think that criminals do often have a special literary acumen, but then I remember that there are untold numbers of criminals, and that crime is more a series of psychological inclinations combined with sociohistorical specifics than it is a trade or vocation. There are proportionately many more literary criminals than literary longshoremen or account executives, but that is because the criminal class is a more exact cross-section of humanity than any trade could be.

BLVR: What’s the best con you’ve come across?

LS: I’ve always loved the homespun symmetry of the cat-and-rat farm. It’s simplicity itself: You set up two sheds, one on either side of the road. One contains cats and the other contains rats. You skin the cats to make fur coats and feed their remains to the rats, and then you feed the rats to the cats. The cats and the rats reproduce passim. Presto: fur-coat trade, no overhead. It’s a perpetual-motion machine. I gather it dates from the 1910s or ‘20s, although I don’t know specifics of anyone employing it. Maybe it sounds better than it plays in the field. (Wait! Do I need to point out that no cats or rats are ever actually harmed—because such a farm is never actually established?)

BLVR: What’s the best street con you’ve ever fallen for?

LS: I’ve never actually been taken, except voluntarily. Besides giving money to people with really wild stories, I also once coughed up at least $15 or $20 to a couple of old-timers who were running a bona fide banco set-up. It was around 1988 or ‘89, when I was working on Low Life. I was breezing through SoHo, which at the time was filled with vast empty storefronts that had lately lost their art galleries and while awaiting the arrival of the corporate vermin had been fitted out as multivendor bazaars in which people sold T-shirts, junk jewelry, and personalized coffee mugs. To my astonishment, there in one of those souks were these two rascals—seventy-five if they were a day—running an operation of a sort that had last been seen in the neighborhood in the 1920s. It was like going fishing and catching a coelacanth, if you had just that day read the Britannica entry on it. A friend of mine came around later and, without the benefit of my research, was thoroughly taken by those guys, to the extent of going home for more money—they string you along by letting you think you are forever just a dice-roll away from collecting the pot, and every dice roll costs more money than the previous one. I think he dropped a couple of centuries.

BLVR: I think there’s part of us that secretly wants to fall for the con.

LS: The con is a kind of jiu-jitsu that turns the sucker’s own greed into its principal weapon. The greedier you are the more likely you are to be conned, and for the greater a sum. Since people regularly dispose of their intelligence in their rush to be swindled, and then turn right around and do it again, humans must want to be duped. Institutionalized wishful thinking—the stock market, religion, advertising—is after all a cornerstone of our system.

BLVR: Speaking of greed, recently we’ve seen a huge rise in a culture of scheming and criminality. I don’t find anything raffish about Enron executives. They’re utterly charmless. How to find criminals interesting without over-romanticizing them?

LS: Oh, go ahead and romanticize them! If they’re actually interesting, criminals merit an audience. And why not? I always give money to a sidewalk con if the story is a good one, even if I don’t believe a word of it. Art deserves to get paid. The Enron creeps deserve to be put in a maximum-security prison, though.

BLVR: You often write about America as this place of self-invention, and criminals have played a really big part in that dark side of the country’s identity that people are afraid to admit. What’s really behind this fear?

LS: Self-reinvention is an essential trope of the American project, closely linked to another such trope: going on the lam. Both are regularly featured in movies and novels and suchlike. Criminals and persons loitering with and without intent hold a crucial place in the culture. For obvious reasons, the culture cannot endorse this behavior, even as it is in thrall to it.

BLVR: Are you saying that going on the lam is consistent with an American ideal that we can constantly move, escape, get a fresh start, begin a new life somewhere else? Is there a romanticization of criminals that the culture embraces? That criminals may be the last truly free men?

LS: Well, think about it: the founding myth of this country involves pushing farther and farther out into terra incognita, cutting ties to family and background, maybe adopting a new name and a completely concocted new identity, and somehow making lots of money, the existence of which in sufficient quantity is enough to stifle any questions about its provenance. The land that formerly belonged to the Sioux, the copper that formerly belonged to the Navaho, the skins that formerly belonged to the beavers, the stake that formerly belonged to the miner who caught diphtheria—they’re yours now, pal. Call yourself “Colonel” and declare that your fortune was left to you by Dutch burghers from the seventeenth century. Now you’re a solid citizen, the embodiment of hard work and rugged individualism. You’re no criminal. The criminal is the guy who comes up short, who gets caught, who fails to adopt a respectable cover. But after a while the solid citizen gets to missing those wild years, even as he is ensconced in his forty-room Carrera-marble Beaux-Arts palace on upper Fifth Avenue. He thinks wistfully of how he used to hop freights, sleep in culverts, drink white lightning in hobo jungles, take a sash-weight to his competitors, go through the pockets of the recently dead. He envies those who live that life now denied him forevermore. It seems to him that he’s a prisoner of his own success and that those yeggs out there are truly free.

BLVR: In terms of images, you’ve said that photographer Walker Evans was powerful because unlike his contemporaries in the 1930s who were creating social messages with their art, his photos had no messages, sentiments, or aphorisms, that he didn’t allow himself a style. As a writer or artist, what does it mean to “not allow oneself a style”?

LS: Well, it’s a photographic equivalent to the “plain style” in English prose. It does not call attention to itself, takes the straightest line from A to B, finds the simplest form, etc. It’s a very tough discipline. Almost no one can keep it up, certainly not me.

BLVR: Along those lines, you’ve described Arthur Kempton as a writer “to whom nothing human is alien.” Is this also your desire as a writer?

LS: Yeah, I think so. I hadn’t thought of it that way, maybe because I’ve always assumed it to be an absolute requirement for being a writer: to find all emotions and the sources of all behaviors somewhere within yourself.

BLVR: One guy who really had that huge capacity for human behavior was former New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, about whom you’ve written lovingly as a chronicler of the flotsam, riffraff, and Low Life of the New York. He’s a member of a lost breed of anthropological investigators of the city. Have those societies, tribes, castes, and languages of the Low Life of New York disappeared under the heel of gentrification, or are writers just not working hard enough these days as chroniclers?

LS: The sorts of subjects Liebling and Joseph Mitchell wrote about have indeed disappeared, and the number of suspects in the case are almost too many to enumerate—not just gentrification, but also population growth, the rise of electronic media, the disappearance of whole categories of occupation and trade, etc. At the same time, though, there are many tribes, castes, and languages out there. There are societies of Chinese fishmongers, Jamaican croupiers, Romany auto-body repairmen, Filipina nurses, and so on, that are every bit as complex as those of Mitchell’s oystermen and fortune-tellers, and there are criminal strata of all sorts and all backgrounds in the five boroughs of New York City alone, and who knows what their lore may consist of or what their slang means? For all I know there are just as many eccentric public characters on the street as there were in the 1930s, only they are little-known outside their own neighborhood or ethnic group. But it is so much more difficult now to live reasonably well on little money, so eccentrics either lose their color under the pressure of trying to stay alive, or bug out completely and wind up in the bin.

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