I was ready for the fight. It was going to be the bataille royale of New York, 1990. On the other side of the world, the Gulf War was raging. And here, in the Meat Market, in the Far West Greenwich Village of New York City, two almighty Queens were holding their high ground. Both were determined to hold a single reign over the two kingdoms: the gritty kingdom of the night, of rock’n’roll and the edge versus the kingdom of order, manicured stoops and well-curbed dogs.

Reggie Fitzgerald’s mission was saving the area from the devastation of vice, crime and crack. Mine was saving the sacred rights inscribed in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

He was Chairperson of the Horatio Street Association and chief organizer of the most aggressive community action to fight the prostitutes working the neighborhood streets and the johns from the suburbs cruising to pick them up. I was the insane businessman who opened a 24/7 restaurant right in the middle of it.

Three weeks earlier, I had turned my bicycle onto the block to come up against a police barrier manned by vigilantes standing proudly in day-glo orange flight jackets. These self-appointed defenders of morality were cordoning off the Meat-Market from 7:00pm until dawn every weekend night -- the busiest, biggest nights for my business. Customers walking to my restaurant were already uneasy from the barrage of media coverage about crime. Now, people driving to the restaurant were being forbidden to enter this “war zone”.

We were road-blocked. Cut off from civilization. We the Meat Market were poor little Kuwait, abandoned in our bleak, smelly corner of the world. And worst of all, nobody cared. No official had advised, the Precinct hadn’t called, our Councilman hadn’t notified anyone. Nothing, zilch, nada.

I was apoplectically telling whoever was in earshot that I was going to sue the hell out of whatever person and whatever god damned street association was behind this: “This was America, and people have the freedom to go wherever they want. It’s in the fucking Bill of Rights, period.”

Now it was High Noon at teatime. Martha Rankin’s idea was to have a “peace” meeting between Reggie and I. Martha, who lived on Horatio St., supported both my fries and Reggie’s cause.

It was announced by the most irritating, nagging, faggy, high-pitched voice pushing open the restaurant’s doors followed by one flamboyant, aging queen, with tight leather pants, lavender, long-lapelled satin shirt and flowing neck scarf. I seemed to be meeting with the last surviving “Boy in the Band.”

We squared off, and I volleyed my immediate demand: lift the barricade. It was met with a non-negotiable no. I threatened with a lawsuit backed by the ACLU. Reggie raised the ante with a threat of a boycott of my business by “the entire West Village.”

Starting a war by launching atomic bombs doesn’t give you much to fall back on. And when we realized we had quickly run out of ammunition and that the sparse crowd in this late afternoon mellow hour was staring, speechless, a shot of humility ran through us. I offered a drink.

Now, Reggie made simple, straightforward inquiries about our state of insecurity, about how bad it was late at night. Had any staff been mugged? Customers? Were the hookers giving us problems? I had to give back simple truths, too. The situation was bad and getting worse. We were losing customers, night staff wouldn’t leave alone, and I was contemplating ending all night service on weekdays.

“So what’s your plan of action?” Reggie asked.

I was at a loss. Neither a “plan” nor “action” had ever crossed my mind. I hadn’t contacted a soul on the block…nor they, me.

Then Reggie wanted to know who the movers and shakers were on our street - in other words, who could take the lead.

There was no one.

It started to dawn on me that Reggie was doing some deft maneuvering. I had become his prey. There was no way out of taking responsibility except taking responsibility.

And within an hour, Reggie had me set to lead the Gansevoort Neighborhood Association. It would work hand-in-hand with his Horatio Street Association. He would help me organize a meeting of Meat Market citizens. He explained how we could set up joint security patrols with the Guardian Angels.

He was good. So good that my annual Bastille Days celebrations would become fundraisers for a private security patrol already at work. So good that any lifting of the weekend barricades had now been tabled.

For the next five years, Reggie taught me all the ropes of community activism, from patrolling in the dead of winter wearing our orange windbreakers (his over a full-length fur coat and with high heel boots) to attending all community functions. I met every local politicians, everyone in authority at our police precinct and every patrolman on our beat.

Our great finale together came when an AIDS treatment center offering needle exchange decided to open a facility right on Gansevoort St. in 1995.
Reggie and I were the staunchest backers of the center, which faced a surprising NIMBY groundswell from those good old left-wing Villagers.

On Sunday April 30th, 1995, three days before a critical meeting, I was summoned to meet Reggie…at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Martha and I were ushered into a special decontaminated room on the 9th floor. We were given slippers, rubber gloves and protective masks, then allowed inside the “chamber” where Reggie was holding court. He was dying of throat cancer. Though his throat was bloated and deformed, it was still delicately wrapped in a pink silk scarf.

Like a modern Cardinal de Richelieu on his deathbed, he was instructing his lieutenants how to maneuver on the battlefields to come, how to outflank the enemy, how to sneak from behind, how to play coy, how to make a motion, second it, and get it to pass with unanimity.

His high-pitched voice had turned into a deep growling scratch, halting and gasping for air. I scribbled down my marching orders. There were no wasted emotions…there was too much to do.

He instructed me to take his position at the next meetings.

On May 3rd, at an ugly, raucous meeting, the block association voted in favor of the treatment center.

One week later, Reggie died. And two months later, on July 20th, the proposal was brought before the whole Community Board -- 400 people, standing room only. I had been chosen as one of the three speakers from each side. There was fire in my blood. A fire that Reggie had first kindled. When it was over, I got a standing ovation. The vote was 38 for the treatment center, 1 against. I was wearing a pink shirt with long lapels and black leather pants.

 

FLORENT MORELLET is co-chair of Save the Gansevoort Market and president of Compassion in Dying NY. He is a mapmaker, drag queen, and the unofficial mayor of the Meat Market. The restaurant that bears his name has been a New York institution for nineteen years.