The Hoboken Eel

The Hoboken Eel

The Hoboken Eel was a man who made a brief, but flamboyant, appearance in Tribeca some years back.  A tall, hefty man in his early 60’s with gray hair.  Slavic surname that I can’t remember.  Local gossip had him as a retired city fireman and city engineer and a Marine war hero from WWII.  A prodigious drinker recently separated from his long suffering wife.  Him hiding from her and his family.  Her looking for him or perhaps better said, his pension checks.

At the first of the month he would appear in McGovern’s Bar, dressed in a nice suit, cleanly shaved and neatly combed.  It being the first of the month and having cashed his numerous pension checks with one of the McGovern brothers, he would waltz in with a beautiful call girl, being suave and congenial, buying drinks all around, regaling people with all kinds of stories real and imagined. All the girls were very young, well dressed, most often black or Hispanic and more than slightly amused at one, their client and two, at the dive he had chosen to take them to.  On one occasion, I heard Peter the bartender  say softly to one such girl, “You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful whore he has ever brought in here.  “

To which she demurely replied, “Why thank you very much.”

On the second week the Eel would appear late at night, or rather early in the morning, reeling from drink, a week’s growth on his jowls, his suit stained and disheveled and a different woman on his arm, usually older and almost always high on something.  His stories changed to harangues with few people listening to the content but all watching his wild gestures and antics.  He’d go into the old wooden phone booth and have long ranting conversations with someone he was very angry with.  Walking by one night, I noticed as he screamed and cried into the receiver that he held the lever down with his other hand.  Returning to the bar, I mentioned this to Peter, who gave me a look and asked, “You’re just noticing that now?”

On the third week he would arrive at the bar in the early mornings completely out of his mind on vodka, wearing an old threadbare suit of mismatched parts, his hair like Einstein, face bright red covered with a sprouting grey beard and a very trashy street walker in tow whom he would more often than not, try to pedal off to some of the drunken clientele leaning into their drinks.  On one such night, the local band  was taking a long marijuana break outside and the Eel walked up to the piano and standing up, knocked out a very respectable boogiewoogie number.  He continued for several more numbers, then absentmindedly wandered off to the phone booth and “called” someone to yell at.  Meanwhile, his  hooker “friend” worked the bar and was escorted to the ladies room a few times.  (The ladies room being the only place in the joint with a lock on the door.)

On the fourth week, the Eel would appear at any time day or night dressed in a torn T-shirt, Bermuda shorts and flip flops (no matter what the weather). Shuffling through the door huge belly first, he’d be dragging a plastic milk crate from a piece of twine he’d tied to it.  In the box were various and sundry articles found in his journeys, books, coffee pots, broken toys. He’d try to cage drinks from the customers and try to get the owners, bartenders and customers to lend him some money or buy him a drink, usually without much success.

But, come the new month and the cashing of that month’s pension checks, the Hoboken Eel would transform once again into the dashing man about town.  New suit.  Beautiful girl.  To all the world, a worldly man of class and manner (or, at least, reasonably presentable to his chosen playground).

This pattern continued for several months with slight variations.  I heard that  his wife had found out where he was spending all his time and money and had taken to calling the McGovern brothers with, at first, polite inquiries and, later, angry recriminations and threats..  She even made a couple of surprise late night appearances hoping to catch him with most of his pension money intact.

I haven’t seen him in years now and have wondered if he ever returned to the relative quiet of his suburban home and watchful wife.  Or maybe he just found another quiet bar in another quiet neighborhood that she couldn’t find.

Late One Night

Late One Night

Five or six artists were sitting at the bar of 211, a great artist friendly bar in Tribeca.  It was late, maybe 12:30, one o’clock . Close to closing time. Behind them the restaurant was nearly empty.  In walked a thirty something dark haired white guy with three young and very pretty black women.  Once seated he ordered, in a heavy Spanish accent, four servings of gazpacho. The waiter told him it wasn’t on the menu.  He insisted that the waiter tell the chef to make some.  The waiter went into the kitchen and came back to the table. The chef had refused his request.

The guy then said the waiter should go tell the chef he was “an asshole”.  The waiter did so.  The chef came out of the kitchen and approached Big Max at the bar and asked him to please come into the kitchen.  Big Max was a young robust, long haired artist about 6″ 6″, 300 lbs. and whose work for the previous six years had been large intensely researched installations about serial killers, like the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy.

Once in the kitchen the chef explained to Max what he had in mind.  Having had his usual ten or so shots of Herradura tequila, Max happily agreed. They put a chef’s white jacket on him which couldn’t be buttoned in the front and with sleeves to his forearms.  He put on chef’s pants that didn’t button in the front completely and which came to mid calves. Then, for effect, they splashed juices, sauces and gravies over his costume and sent him out to the table.

“I understand there’s a problem?” said Max, standing just a little too close.

The black girls’ eyes all went wide and stammered, “Oh no.  Oh no.  Everything’s fine.  Really.”

“But I heard you think I’m an asshole.” said Max, looking directly at the guy.

Unable to make eye contact, the guy stared at his lap and murmured, “Oh no. That is not so.  Must have been a translation problem.”

“That’s nice.” said Max, turned and returned to the kitchen.

As soon as Max was in the kitchen, they were up and out the door.  Max and the chef came out of the kitchen and joined those at the bar.  Everyone was laughing, slapping Max on the back.  The bartender bought a round.

A Party At Bob’s

I met Bob Rauschenberg in late 1971 when I was working for Castelli Graphics, the gallery that sold his prints in New York. We became friends almost immediately. You have to have known Bob to realize how fast he could include you in his life if he took a shine to you. This story is about a party I attended at Bob’s studio in New York somewhere around 1973.

When I first met Bob, he was known for throwing great wild open door dance parties. There were always too many people and never enough food and way too much alcohol right up until the last drop disappeared. The main focus of all the parties was almost always the third floor, which in the back was a small kitchen, an old wooden dining table, and a black cast iron gas stove. In the front was a good sized greenhouse filled with plants and a standing Egyptian mummy, nicknamed Eve. Between the front and back was a sixty foot long space. During the day it was a gallery. During nights like this it was the dance floor. It was empty except for a very large John Chamberlain foam couch in the middle of the room. John had made it by pouring urethane foam into a mould about 8 feet by 8 feet by 3 feet. When the foam was set and dry, he would cut out seating areas with an electric carving knife. Each one was a different configuration. They were superb as oversized “love seats”. They all were covered with different fabrics and hides. Bob’s was covered with a bright orange corduroy fabric. The party swarmed around the couch and the kitchen. Debbie Skarupa (later Taylor) (Bob’s assistant who had organized the whole event) had made a giant bowl of steamed shrimp. There was beer, whiskey and ice on the counter. There was the sweet acrid mix of pot and cigarettes throughout the dimly lit room. I had brought some very, very strong pot to the party with me, had passed out a lot of it to friends and strangers. I remember Helen Marden in the kitchen talking to Debbie. Richard Serra was in a corner with a few people. A bunch of Bob’s employees and friends were mixed with a lot of total strangers. Maybe 80-90 people. It was loud with music, talk and laughter.

About midnight or so John Chamberlain came rolling through the double doors. He had an almost empty tequila bottle in one hand and he was reeling and bellowing at the top of his voice. I was on the side of the couch nearest the door and watched him lurch to the dining table. He grabbed the giant shrimp bowl now containing only empty shrimp husks and turned it upside down on the table. Picking up a chair he pushed it through the pile and declared:” Now that’s sculpture”. There was a commotion. In the kitchen corner I could hear a woman cursing and crying. The crowd was bunched and struggling with someone. Someone walked by and I heard “Chamberlain just pulled Helen’s pants off.’’

Sitting on the other side of the couch was a young woman named Tara who worked for this graphic designer who did all the work for the Castelli Galleries. She said, “I’ve never been to one of these parties before. Who are these people?”

By now a seasoned habitue’ of this world, I said, “Here, let me point out some of the people to you.” and turned towards the crowd. Just as I did, John Chamberlain fell on his back onto the couch right beside me, still holding his now empty tequila bottle. On his chest with his knees and with both hands on his collar was Richard Serra. Richard was yelling; “Back off, man. You’re ripping off my energy.” To which John replied, “Aw, man, lighten up. Be cool.” At this moment, Bob appeared and pulled Richard off saying, “OK, girls. Break it up.” Richard walked off swearing. Bob gathered John up and headed him for the stairway. I said to Tara, pointing in turn, “That was John Chamberlain. And that was Richard Serra and that was Bob Rauschenberg.”

A crowd of eight or ten were following, yelling and cursing at John. I could see one woman Penelope swinging a cast iron frying pan over Bob’s shoulder trying to get John’s head. He was cursing back and mocking her.

The noise lessened as the gaggle moved further down the stairs.

Bob had big parties after that one, but none of those big come one-come all parties. He said they weren’t fun anymore.

Boy’s Fight Out 2006

St. Valentine’s Day in Tribeca 1999

Don and I spent the whole day customizing Al’s loft to accommodate his increasing disabilities due to cancer. Our mission was to make his place a little more user friendly and give his wife Debbie a chance to leave the loft on her own for the first time in a month. As Al put it, we were to be his babysitters and we were glad to do it. We started at 8 in the morning, hauling sheets of plywood and 2 x 4’s up four flights of stairs. When we finished around 9 PM, I was very tired and hungry, but pleased. Don and I said our goodbyes and I walked the six or so blocks home, picking up some takeout chicken and fries on the way. After dinner I cleaned up, changed my clothes and headed out into the neighborhood for the proverbial “couple of drinks”.

First I stopped at Puffy’s and had a couple of drinks with Susan, who had just begun her Saturday night shift. Then I wandered over to No Name and found it crowded with strangers. The phrase we used then for this situation was “House of Strangers.” I walked across the street to No Moore, which was also filled with strangers and I began to feel like some weird hipster dude. I had a drink and talked with the bartender and the owner for a while, but quickly tired of shouting over the band. People were beginning to file in for Salsa Night. A couple more drinks and I had a good buzz on. Several (some might say, too many) tequilas with beer chasers at this point and I went out the door headed for home.

I was in Puffy’s. Why? Don’t know. Maybe because it was on the way home. Maybe because I saw someone I knew or thought I wanted to know. More probably because I didn’t know when to say enough is enough. I sat with Rob near the front door and ordered a cup of coffee with a shot of tequila on the side. It seemed like a sensible thing to order at that point, I thought. Bordering on responsible even. Rob and I argued art. With Rob, you never talked art. You argued. The night’s discussion was when, if ever, and under what circumstances would we ever change our art to be more successful, if success ever came our way? Again I was in a place with hardly a familiar face. An attractive blonde with glasses was trying to get Rob to dance. “I don’t dance.” was his response. She asked him with each new song on the juke, swaying to and fro. Still no go. I thought it was such a waste to let this young woman’s needs go unfulfilled. I myself never needed much encouragement to dance. “Wanna dance with me?” I asked. She accepted and I managed to keep up with the beat and not trip over my feet. I surprised myself with the energy I mustered from my stair weary legs. After the dance I returned to my stool and laughed it up with Susan, Rob and the blonde. She still wanted him to dance and he still declined. I’m thinking about another dance when some guy came running through the door yelling: “Quick! Call the police! Some guy’s trying to steal this guy’s car!” I looked out the window, and in the half-light of the parking lot across the street, I saw one guy chasing another around the cars. I went outside with three other guys, all 20 something strangers.

There were two white guys in the parking lot. A fortyish balding guy ran up to me, “Help me. He’s going to kill me.” A younger longhaired man was screaming obscenities. I immediately thought that this is some guy love thing gone bad. I asked them if them if they knew each other., but they were both so hysterical, I got no answer. I got between them and Longhair started yelling at me. I said the cops are coming and he should cool it. Susan was there now and said that 911 was not responding, that they wanted the license plate number of the car that was being stolen. Longhair screamed: “Who are you? Who the fuck are you? Get away from me!” Yelling “I’m going to kill you.” To Baldie and the rest of us. He kicked Baldie in the ass.

I said “Stop that.” He kicked him again. I said, “Stop that.” He kicked him a third time and I shoved him away.

He screamed at me: “I’m going to shoot you, you motherfucker.”

“What?” He was gesturing wildly with his hands and darting back and forth trying to get at the other guy.

“You heard me! I’m going to fucking shoot you!” In an instant I was sober. This was real. It took me a second to realize that I couldn’t walk away from this. I didn’t think waiting for him to pull a pistol and shoot me in the back was a good idea either. So I jumped on him, wrapped my arms around him, and fell on him. He resisted for just a moment, crumbled to the pavement and laid stock still.

I said to him: “You must think I’m fucking stupid if you think I’m not going to search you after what you just said. Hold his arms, guys.” Two of them pinned an arm each and I frisked him. Chest, armpits, waist- band. He started to make cooing sounds as I went lower. Asked me if I was getting off on it. I gave his crotch a firm squeeze and he shut up. I patted down his legs and ankles. “No gun, guys. Let him up.” He got up and started yelling. I looked at him and said: “”I’ve got enough shit in my life without adding you to it.” and walked back into the bar.

Inside Susan was on the phone screaming: “He’s threatening to shoot people now. You better send some cops right now.” I told her that he didn’t have a gun. I looked out the window and he was yelling at the other guys. I saw a car pull out of the lot real quick and speed up Hudson. Baldie had made his escape. One of my backups, tall, young with red hair said to me, “You did the right thing.”

I shrugged. Right thing. Staying in the bar would have been the right thing. Going home much earlier would have been the right thing. Staying home and reading a good book and going to bed at ten would have definitely been the right thing. Longhair was standing in the doorway threatening everyone in the bar until he saw the first police car coming down Harrison St. and broke off his tirade in mid-obscenity to make a run down Hudson. I couldn’t see him, but I could see another squad car, coming the wrong way down Hudson, then another that came from Worth St. One cop ran by the window with a drawn pistol, holding it in both hands over his head. I heard someone shout: “Put your hands on the railing. Don’t fuckin’ move!” I thought: “O Christ. They’re going to shoot him.” Susan went out for few minutes and came back and told me that the cops wanted to talk to me. I went out and met a very calm and serious woman police sergeant. “What happened?” she asked.

I told her that someone came into the bar. Said someone was stealing a car. I went out and saw one guy chasing the other.

“Where’s the other guy?”


“Did this man threaten you with a gun?”

“He said he was going to shoot me, so I jumped on him, had the other guys hold him while I searched him. He didn’t have a gun.”

“Do you want to press charges?”

“No, I just want him to go away.”

“We can do that,” she said in a quiet voice.

Then she was gone and I was back in the bar with Rob and the blonde. She was still trying to get Rob to dance. What was this guy’s problem? I was saturated with adrenaline and after a couple of songs I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t sit still. The blonde and I started dancing again when who comes through the door? It was none other than Frank, the bar owner. He had on his normal “I don’t give a shit” smirk. I grabbed him by the shoulders in a tight grip and started bouncing him up and down. He was scared, but still smiling. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on. He tried to get away, but wasn’t strong enough. I had a real lock on him. His forte was passive aggression so he went limp, but I was so pumped I just held him up, bouncing him up and down in rhythm to the music. Everyone in the bar was laughing like inmates in an insane asylum. Susan was chanting something I couldn’t understand. “Was it: “Kill him! Kill him!”? People were clapping. Frank started to loosen up. People were paying attention to him and laughing. (Believe me when I say, a most unusual event for him.) The song ended and I put him down on his feet, and with a slight bow, returned to my corner of the bar. Susan poured me another drink.

Then he accepted a dance from the blonde. Susan’s mouth dropped open: “ He never dances.”

I yelled out to her: “See? I taught him how to dance.”

Rob asked me why he didn’t resist.

I said because he liked it.

“Because he’s into S and M?”

“Nah, Just passive.”

Rob offered me a hit on a roach he had. I said: “Only if it’s on my way home.”

He said: “Nah, man. Stick around. You’re the man of the hour right now. Why leave?”

“I’ve had enough for tonight. That was stupid out there. And stupid to dance with him. I usually can’t stand him. I’m going home before I do something even more stupid.”

We walked out and I took a couple of hits, said
Thanks” and walked home. There I chased four aspirins with a tall glass of milk and two large peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, it took me a couple of minutes to remember. My first words of the new day were “Oh shit.”

The Job

It was the summer of 1971 and I was living in Brooklyn. I had decided to stay in New York, instead of returning for a third time to the same summer job in New Hampshire. I had been the head cook at Eddie’s Steak House, an Italian-American restaurant run by a wildly dysfunctional French-Canadian family in the White Mountains.

I was a resident advisor in a Pratt Institute dorm, had a room for the summer and just needed some part time job to get me through to my last semester in September. Jim, an old room mate, had got a job at Castelli Graphics at East 77th St and 5th Ave. But he had also got a job doing carpentry for the school shrink in Woodstock. Woodstock in 1971 was a lot cooler than the Upper East Side so he fixed it so I would work the summer and we would share the job in the fall.

The first time I ever walked into a New York art gallery was when I arrived at 4 East 77th St. for my job interview. I talked with the owner Toiny , Leo’s wife, and Antoinette, the director, and got the job. I was in art school and had no idea that I had just landed a job at the hottest gallery showing the hottest artists of the time: Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Lictenstein, Stella, Judd, Flavin to name just a few. Take home pay after deductions was $45 a week.

The first week there Toiny was putting together a Black and White Show and asked me to go downstairs and pick out a black and white Rauschenberg print from the” Current Series”. Here was one of my top ten most favorite artists of all time and I was being given the task of selecting one. It was almost beyond belief. I went down to the basement and after what seemed like forever, choose one and brought it upstairs. Much to my surprise they liked it. I did my best to be cool. Basically my original job description was to run errands, clean fingerprints off the frames and walls, and sweep the floors. And now within a week I was choosing art.

The next week Toiny asked me to come over to their apartment around the corner on 5th Ave. They had just had the place painted and she wanted to rehang the art. I walked in the first thing I saw was Rauschenberg’s “Bed” sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sputtered, “Is this “Bed”? This can’t be THE “Bed”.

Toiny said, “Of course it is. What else would it be?”

I said, “It’s got to be a reproduction. Somebody’s made a copy of it. It can’t be real.”

“Oh, Charles, don’t be so silly.” was her reply.

I had not met Rauschenberg at this point. I knew this man through art magazines, art films and slide lectures. This was Robert Rauschenberg. Winner of the Venice Bienalle. The guy who painted with silkscreens, did strange dances and made sculpture out of junk. His work was small (maybe 2 inches by 1 inch), black and white usually, and was made up of tiny half tone dots. It hit me that I knew these pieces through reproduction. Their being actual objects, one of a kind had not registered. Toiny told me how her son Jean Christophe had placed a small teddy bear between the spread and the sheet and how Rauschenberg had laughed when he saw it during a party.

Well, I hung “Bed” that afternoon. And I was very nervous about my hanging skills, but Toiny showed me the basics. As well as Bob’s “Persimmon”(a beautiful silkscreen painting featuring a Rubens’ nude), I rehung Johns’ “Target with Body Parts”, a large “Flag, and his “Fool’s Cup”, Lichtenstein’s “George Washington” and a large black and white Stella to boot. Quite an introduction to art installations, don’t you think?

I stayed with Castelli Graphics for over four years and in that time I went from go-fer to co-director. It was such a total immersion into the art world of the time that I call it my Master’s Degree.

I quit in September of 1975 and was hired by Rauschenberg to be his curator and was quickly thrown into the planning of his retrospective at the Smithsonian Institute scheduled to open the next year. I worked for him for over a dozen years off and on. I quit a couple times and got fired a couple of times. (It depends on whom you talk to.) There were many adventures.

But those stories are for another time.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side


In the fall of 1971 I was still in college and working part-time as a go-fer at Castelli Graphics. This place sold the prints of the artists showing with the Leo Castelli Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Leo was the biggest art dealer of the time showing the blue chip artists of modern art. Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombly, Stella, Serra, Lichtenstein and Warhol were a few.

One afternoon two young men walked into the gallery. They were dressed exactly alike: denim shirts, denim pants and denim jackets. Both had crew cuts. An unusual hairstyle in the city at the time.

The taller one came up to me. Very excited, slightly sweaty. Breathless and twitchy. My college education stood me in good stead as I thought ”Amphetamines”.

“If you get any mail for Jack Curtis, forward it to my new address. I’m no longer Jackie Curtis. I’m James Dean. Remember: James Dean. From now on, forward all my mail to the James Dean Memorial Foundation.”

I had seen maybe two Warhol films by this time and even though this person in front of me was dressed as a man , I did recognize Jackie Curtis, one of the transvestites from Warhol’s Factory crowd.

A celebrity sighting. One of my first. Summoning up what I thought was my best imitation of “weary urban sophistication”, I said, “Yeah, OK. Sure.”

But I was thinking: “Is this guy nuts? We’ve never got a letter for him here? Why would anybody send him a letter here? I hope this doesn’t get too weird.”

But that was it. It was over in a couple of minutes and definitely something memorable.

About a year later I was listening to the radio and heard Lou Reed’s voice and he was singing:.

“Jackie is just speeding away

Thought he was James Dean for a day

Then I guess she had to crash

Valium would’ve helped that bash.

Take a walk on the wild side.

Take a walk on the wild side.”

What a kick. I remembered the day and thought how cool it was that I was there for that. Not very sophisticated, I know, but it’s still makes me smile to this day.

Charles Yoder is a painter still living and working in New York City.

The Artist and the Collector


It was 1978. I was in Captiva Florida working with Bob Rauschenberg. I was filling in for his regular assistant Peter Wirth who had fallen in love with Ellen and run off to Los Angeles. I never saw someone fall in love so fast. Quit his job, dropped his long time Captiva girlriend and was out the door in two days. One day Joe Hirshhorn showed up with his secretary (read: mistress) in a black limo. He visited Bob’s studio and expressed interest in buying some work.

Joe Hirshhorn was an industrialist who had made his money in uranium mining in the 50’s and 60’s and had become a big time art collector. He was in his mid 60’s at this time, about five foot nothing and dressed like a carnival barker in brightly colored checkered jackets and pants with white shoes and a white belt. In the 60’s and 70’s Joe was known for buying out entire exhibitions in one fell swoop but substantial discounts were always part of the deal. Later he founded the Hirshhorn Museum in DC and started its collection with his own. He was a wheeler-dealer of the first order.

He and Bob bantered and parried. Both were being stubborn and neither was happy. There was laughter but it was a strained kind of laughter. There was a lunch with the prerequisite drinks. His secretary had a new Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone. He wanted one of me with him. Just before she snapped the picture, I leaned over and rested my elbow on top of his head. “Damn you, you son of a bitch.” he said, but when he gave me the photo it was inscribed, “With deep affection, Joe Hirshhorn.” He offered to buy some of my paintings, never having seen any. I’m sure he thought I was Bob Petersen, an artist that was Rauschenberg’s #1 at the time. He was doing all he could to make this deal. The visit ended in the late afternoon with Joe storming out to his waiting car with apologizing secretary in tow. As the car passed by us, the window rolled down and Joe’s face appeared followed by a shaking upraised “bird”. “Fuck you.” he yelled and disappeared in a cloud of dust. It was the last time I saw him but I still have the Polaroid.

What Joe had forgotten was that we had met once before.

Around 1974 I was working as the director of Castelli Graphics in uptown Manhattan at East 77th St. We were showing Bob Rauschenberg’s handmade paper prints “Pages and Fuses” by Gemini. About ten or so pieces. Some minimalist off white shapes. Others made with brightly colored paper pulp in different shapes with images fused to the paper.

Joe Hirshhorn came in one day when I was there alone. He took a quick look around and announced “I’ll take them all. What’s my discount?’ I told him I’d have to talk to the owner Toiny Castelli and get back to him. When I talked to Toiny, she said she had paid so much for them that she couldn’t afford to give anyone a discount. I called Hirshhorn and told him the news. He yelled and swore at me. I said I was sorry but that was the way it was. He said, “You don’t like me, do you?’

I said, “Joe, it’s not a matter of like or dislike. It’s just business.”

“Well, you wouldn’t like me if I kicked you in the balls, would you?”

I laughed and said, “Joe, you can’t kick that high.”

He laughed and said, “Alright you son of a bitch, send me an invoice.”

And those are my Hirshhorn stories.