“if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” This was the advice given to street punks in New York City when I was growing up. I often heard this take on the law from Freebie, a local hustler, sometimes dealer, and loudmouthed critic of everyone else’s behavior. Freebie was called this in the Village because he always sought a free meal, coffee, place to stay, or “touch.”
Now the streets of the Village teamed with people whose intent was to make it big somehow. There were “no talents” who thought a good enough hustle would take them someplace. There were also the wannabees, who believed imitating someone else would allow them to ride the coattails to success. Of course, there could only be so many Joan Baez or Bob Dylan clones, but they seemed not to notice.
But to get back to Freebie, he had his favorite bits of advice, which he’d soulfully share while looking you square in the face. He’d get this intent and piercing look while reciting something like, “if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” Freebie, it should be mentioned, did enough time for minor offenses in the Tombs, New York City’s infamous jail, that he should have followed his own advice.
On Sunday’s Freebie could be found on stakeout in Washington Square, participating in the free-for-all music, poetry, and political rant that was the Washington Square experience in the early sixties. He’d wander the crowd looking for young people with that lost look in their eyes, offer to take them under his wing, and show them the “real” Village.
I think I fell into a different category than the wannabes or the no-talents. I eventually settled on second-rate talent performing in third-rate dives. After a few months in the Village, I had adopted the same world-wise point of view as all the other habitues of the folk music clubs and coffeehouses. We were all seventeen or so but thought we had seen it all. But at our inception into this life, we had all had our doings with Freebie or someone like him. Freebie gave us our first real tour of Bleeker Street, explained the differences between West and East Village, and introduced us around. We “outgrew” the Freebies and wanted little to do with them after we had become hip. But there was a relationship.
If we wanted a quick drug connection, we would go to Freebie. If you needed to know about local law enforcement, you went to Freebie. It wasn’t like someone like Freebie was a favorite or favored individual. It was just that Freebie was so indisputably useful.
People like Freebie came and went, just like many of the rest of us. We’d sweep into the neighborhood one fall and hitchhike out one spring a year or two later bound for Boston, the Haight, Denver, or Yorktown. For Freebie, it was the luck and bad luck of being a known conduit of information and goods. Sooner or later, something or someone will catch up with you.
In the spring of ’65, I headed for Boston. A year later, I revisited my old digs, and the word at the Rienzi was that Freebie had been caught with his fingers too deep in a drug deal. He was now doing a stint upstate in New York State’s exclusive prison for the incorrigible Sing Sing.
That Sunday, I went to Washinton Square Park to watch the performers, political ranters, and the crowd. Working the mob were Freebie wannabees, ” Hey! You from Uptown? Never been to the Village before? Wow, what a great time you can have. Hey, can I offer a bit of advice?”
Some things never get old, and some roles will always need to be filled. Erase one person filling the role, and another appears.