“1961 in the Loft” by Virginia Wald

A few weeks after her 17th birthday in the spring of 1961, Virginia McEwan moved to New York City with saxophonist Lin Halliday.  She and Lin and pianist Sonny Clark spent much of that summer dwelling at the 821 Sixth Avenue loft. She maintained a P.O.Box at Penn Station in order to finish high school correspondence classes. She left New York for good that fall after becoming pregnant with Lin’s child.  In late September 1961 she, Lin, and Sonny were recorded by W. Eugene Smith’s tapes in a harrowing hallway scene that is featured in the Jazz Loft Project book.  Today Virginia lives on a peninsula off the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Port Townsend, Washington with her husband, bassist Ted Wald, whom she first met at the loft.  Her willingness to share her memories with the Jazz Loft Project has become an invaluable part of our documentation, providing poignant glimpses of underground life in New York City.  The following is Virginia’s story, excerpted from past letters to Sam Stephenson, with her editorial approval:

I was born in Wilmington, Delaware on March 8, 1944; International Woman’s Day.  I lived with my maternal grandparents until I was thirteen when I went to Chicago to rejoin my mother.  She lived in Hyde Park, a University of Chicago neighborhood, and she worked as the personal secretary to Carl Rogers, a well-known psychologist.  She was only nineteen when I was born and thirty-two when I went to live with her.  It was there that I was exposed to the Bohemian culture, the beatniks of the late fifties.  I can say in retrospect, when trying to figure out what it was that motivated me to live in the situation I did in New York, that this was were I derived my point of view.  Existentialism.

I met Lin Halliday in Cincinnati, Ohio.  I’d been living with a man named Rusty Allen for about a year. I met Rusty in Chicago about the time I liberated myself from my mother’s house.  She’d just married a man named Dean Mack, who was a “hipster,” and I wasn’t happy living with them.  I simply moved out and my mother did not stop me.  I had just turned sixteen a week or two before moving out, and had already dropped out of high school.  Rusty was a student at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, the neighborhood I lived in.  After dropping out of school, he moved back to his hometown, Cincinnati, and I went with him.  He was twenty-one and played trumpet.  I was already sexually active and had a few lovers during that time.  While I was living with Rusty, I also was having an affair with his neighbor, Chase Shaffer, a Harvard graduate in his thirties who owned his own airplane.  It was Chase who drove both Lin and me to New York, and he also picked me up at the loft when I left for good.

I met Lin one night when Rusty took us to hear a jazz trio—Dee Felice on drums, a bass player whose name I have forgotten, and Lin on tenor sax.  Of course, I was attracted to a jazz musician.  That was the ideal in a hipster culture where jazz was revered.  I had listened to and knew jazz players in Chicago, including Ira Sullivan who was a friend of my parents.  I was also very attracted to Lin because he was tall and in those days I myself was just a tad short of 5’10″.  Lin was 6’4′ and he made me feel very feminine. You’d have to understand how much verbal abuse I’d received always being the tallest one in my class throughout elementary school.  At 5’10″ I was an inch taller than the average height for a man.  Lin could actually pick me up.  And Lin was a stunning player.  Musicians who knew him still talk about his playing today. Although Rusty and Chase had been very good to me – both of them teamed up to pay for my high school correspondence course – I immediately moved in with Lin.  In fact, during those first days that we were together I actually stayed up for two whole days, something I’ve never done before or since.  I was totally in love. We found a little apartment in Cincinnati and set up house. I remember making spaghetti for us, one of my first tries at cooking.  We only stayed in Cincinnati for a few weeks and that was when I had a dream.  Something evil was in the house and I could see the red eyes looking out of the wall.  For the rest of our relationship Lin would remind me of “red eyes”.  It was during that time that I began to fathom that Lin was a heroin user, although little was available in his life at that time.  My first memory of Lin using was shortly after we met and were living in Cincinnati.  He got some heroin somewhere, of course, not really telling me, and went into the bathtub and presumably shot up.  He nodded off and I found him the next day still sitting in the cold water with a razor blade clutched between his two fingers, which he’d apparently used to cut the stuff.  But I was in love, so a rationalized it and made it okay. Sometime during those first weeks, we decided to move to New York. Chase, who had friends in New York, drove us.  I remember being on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and asking to stop in Wilmington where my grandparents lives.  We sat outside the house I’d grown up in for a few moments but we didn’t go in.  Our real goal was to go to Elkton, Maryland where Lin and I could be married. Unfortunately it was already evening and everything was closed so we didn’t do it. We arrived outside of the loft (821 Sixth Avenue) that night at two in the morning, and Lin went upstairs and asked if we could stay there.  My trunk of clothes remained there from that night when we arrived in May until I left in October.  It was a very different world in 1961, before the Beatles, the Viet Nam War, hippies and the new sixties music.  Nineteen sixty-one was still more or less an extension of the fifties.  Jazz musicians were still keeping up a dress code that the times dictated: white shirts, slacks, shined shoes.  In fact, often any money I was able to get my hands on during that summer in New York was spent at laundries where we had Lin’s shirts done.

Since the time Lin and I had arrived in New York, we had the loft as our safe place even though there were other places that we slept—(trumpeter) Manny Duran’s, the apartment of someone whose name I have forgotten on St. Mark’s Place, two places that (drummer) Tommy Wayburn had, one a sub-let from (pianist) Carla Bley and, later that summer, Tommy’s own loft in the same building as Sonny Carr on Twenty-Third Street. Shortly after we arrived in New York, Sonny Clark attached himself to us.  I don’t think he even had a place he called his own.  I couldn’t get into Birdland, one of the few places in New York that even asked for age identification.  I always had to hang out for a few hours if Lin and Sonny were in Birdland.

On the very first day that we arrived in New York, Lin went out to cop heroin from a dealer named Stringbean. Stringbean’s became a regular stop in our life until a few weeks later he stole Lin’s Selmer (saxophone) and pawned it.  That was another common occurrence, either having your instrument stolen and pawned or pawning it yourself for that next fix.  Over the summer, after Lin got his horn back, he pawned it himself several times.  I knew I was in trouble as Lin’s addiction began to be the thing that our life revolved around.

When I first met Lin, I was only vaguely aware of the heroin culture.  I’d first seen it in the movie “Man with the Golden Arm” based on Nelson Algren’s novel.  I was about ten at the time and just had the fuzziest concept of what was going on.  I vividly remember the “cold turkey” scene however, when Kim Novak locks Frank Sinatra into a room so he can kick.  And of course, I had read the Beat poetry which was very prevalent at the end of the fifties.  But personally, I knew little although jazz musicians were idolized by the Beat’s.

I don’t remember the first time I saw anyone shoot up but I do remember the paraphernalia – spoon, spike, eyedropper, cotton, matches and something to tie off the arm.  You put the stuff in the spoon with a little water, heat it with the match, draw it through the cotton into the syringe through the needle, tie off your arm and then you shoot it into a vein.  And then you nod out, sometimes for hours.  If you have any left, you do it again.

Later on that first morning in New York, we went to Times Square.  We met another junkie there.  I don’t remember who, a young white male, most likely a musician. It was there that I began to learn of the things junkies do to get the money they need every day to score.  He told me about playing “Murphy,” apparently because I could have been the perfect decoy to make it work.  What it amounts to is that a junkie poses as a pimp and approaches one of the many men from all over the world who come to Times Square to find a hooker.  The pimp lets the man know that the girl is available, and the girl, posing as the hooker, tells him to meet up with them at some obscure location and then robs the man.  That is how you play “Murphy”.  I never did this, just learned about it.

Stringbean had a woman who worked Times Square.  She was older, maybe in her forties, very dark, skinny legged and not too attractive, but still playing the trade.  I think she may have been the type of prostitute who would go into a back alley and lift up her skirt.  She was most likely a user too. Scoring was a full time job for those who were strung out.  And I heard many stories of how someone thought they could dabble and not get caught up into addiction.  Most of the stories were the same, they woke up one day and they were full time junkies.  Even though I never, to this very day, ever used, being in this culture makes you feel like a criminal.  And just about everyone we knew was involved in some sort of criminal behavior one way or the other.  Women turned tricks for their own habits or their boyfriends’ habits.  People shoplifted, played Murphy, stole from family and friends, and begged money.  Lin sold milk sugar in heroin packets at the Union.

The paraphernalia—needle, syringe, etc. were called “works”.  Works were a problem.  You needed them to get off, but you couldn’t carry them with you.  If you were caught with works you could get busted and sent to Rikers Island.  I met many an alumnus from Rikers during my stay in New York.  Sometimes, because I looked so innocent and young, I carried the works for Lin, but usually they were stashed somewhere for future use.  The most common place was in a public bathroom maybe under the plumbing, or behind the toilet tank.  To this day, I sometimes check out the hiding places I came to know in public toilets.  Of course, today the needles are very dangerous as one can get AIDS from them, but back then needle sharing was common, sometimes with everyone getting off using the same needle. Today, my husband Ted tells me a story, during his junkie days, of how he was in a toilet somewhere and the only water available to put in the spoon was the toilet water and that is what they used.  Getting high overrode all common sense.

Of course, heroin was not always available.  This was often because one could not afford the “nickel bag” which was what it cost back then—five dollars for a small bag of white powder.  In that case there were other things to substitute such as paregoric (used on the gums of teething babies), vaso-inhalers, where you pulled out the cotton stuffing from the nasal inhaler and shot up the liquid from inside, Cosenol cough syrup or Turpenhydrate, another cough syrup which you drank, both contained codeine.

One of the saddest things I witnessed that summer involved children.  On Fifty-Second Street there was a junkie couple who lived off the alley across from the Musician’s Union.  They had a small baby in a carriage and they used to keep their works stashed with the baby.  They figured that they wouldn’t get hassled if there was a baby involved. The public was still pretty naive back then about things like addiction.   Another couple, whom I met at the loft, seemed like a typical young couple except that their baby was born strung-out.  I remember how they recounted the story to us.  I was shocked.

You might imagine what it’s like after a junkie scores and he or she can retreat to some corner to shoot up.  I was purely an observer.  To me, the twilight zone for junkies—sitting in some filth and squalor somewhere in a “shooting gallery”—was very boring.  Not being high made it seem like the most monotonous experience for me. But for the participants, it was the pinnacle of their lives, what they lived for and spent all their efforts setting up. It seems like we spent many days in dingy apartments with filthy plumbing and stopped-up sinks, all the shades pulled down, sometimes with a soundless TV on, and everyone sitting around and nobody saying anything. Sometimes junkies would hole up together for days with someone occasionally going out on a food run or to score more smack.

For me, it was okay as it meant we had shelter.  No doubt, I did plenty of high school correspondence work in places like that. Through it all, that entire summer I kept up my school work. I was able to rent a mail box at the old Penn Station and I’d walk there from the Loft in the morning to mail in my school work or check it for mail. I actually graduated six months earlier than I would have if I had stayed in school and hadn’t been on the streets of New York.

I came to learn a lot about prostitution that summer.  It seemed like all the male junkies who had “old ladies” had partners who did not shy away from “turning tricks.”  Of course, they were supplying their own habits too.  I was the partner of a junkie, but I didn’t have a habit.  Maybe that is what saved me.  Although it was always tempting, especially when one’s survival was involved, and I did have a few misadventure that only reinforced that this was not what I wanted to do, I could never wrap my head around having sex with someone I didn’t care for.

One of my strongest memories is of a pimp’s attempt to recruit me. I had made friends with some of his girls while sitting at the Ham ‘N Egger during the many nights I spent waiting for Lin and Sonny Clark, who were playing at Birdland across the street. Once, I remember one of the girls attempting to mount the fire hydrant outside the window of the cafe.  She hiked up her skirt and got on and rode, entertaining all the late-night customers at the counter. I remember having a conversation with another prostitute as I was reading Othello for my school lessons.  I read to her the line, “Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!” which is what Desdemona says to Othello when he is about to kill her.  The hooker really appreciated that line.

The girls told their pimp about me and word came that he wanted to see me.  I was escorted up to some hotel room in the building behind Broadway and Fifty-Second Street.  All the girls were there and he told me what they had to offer, the girls all agreeing.  They were asking me to be part of their family and stressing how they all loved each other and how good their pimp was.  I told them that I was “married,” alluding to Lin and that I loved him. They knew he was a junkie and they told me that I could take care of him even better if I joined them.  I declined.  But maybe if I’d been a young girl, all alone and starving for affection, survival at stake, I might have taken the bait.

Over the summer Lin and I hung out with a few other couples who were also junkies.  They were better able to survive and live on the street. They were white and probably from middle class homes before getting hooked. They were better at keeping up the pretense of being “normal,” but both types of women engaged in prostitution to keep things going. Just being a teenage girl attracted a few who propositioned me or sought to use me sexually, but I also brought Lin and Sonny luck because with me, they were more likely to find shelter and more people wanted to help us—some for their own reasons and some out of kindness because I was with them.  Gary Hawkins and Ron Free (both drummers and residents of 821 Sixth Avenue) were very tolerant of us and as a result the loft was our safe haven all that summer.

Some time in July, I believe, there was story of a stewardess being arrested on an airplane from Europe.  She was busted with an enormous heroin stash.  Within days, heroin was not filtering down to the street.  Junkies were standing out on corners, noses running, sick as dogs and unable to score.  You could drive down the street, as we did in Harlem, and pick them out if you knew what you were looking for. In those days, the general populace did not, but junkies were desperate all over the city.

I remember being in Harlem in someone’s car in the middle of the night as Lin and Sonny went off to see if anyone had anything to sell.  It was about three in the morning and I was in the back seat of a car in Harlem with no place to hide.  I lay down on the seat and tried to not attract attention.  Of course, there was no dope.

This went on for a few days.  During that time we were told we could spend the night in some musician friend’s home, a brownstone on the East Side.  It was his parents’ home, but they were away.   Undoubtedly they did not know their son was a dabbler.  We got there in the early evening and hung out for awhile and then we went to bed.  It was a living room so we had no privacy. Sometime during the night, the panic broke and once more people could get heroin on the streets.

Later that night, while we were still sleeping our host let in some Italian boys from the Village.  They were still kids, maybe nineteen or so and they had just scored and then came here to shoot up.  I remember when they walked in, I think there were two, and one of them woke me up and asked me if I wanted to turn a trick.  I said “No,” and went back to sleep.

Around dawn we were awakened to a bad scene.  The heroin had been too strong; it hadn’t been re-cut as it trickled down to the lower-echelon dealers in the streets.  One of the kids had ODed and they had him sitting up in a chair blowing air into his lungs.  I remember the sound the air made when it came back out, not a pretty sound, maybe a death rattle. They’d already shot him up with salt to revive him, but it was too late.  He was gone.  Our host told us that he was going to call the Death Squad and we should leave.  We grabbed all of our stuff and ran out onto the street and to the subway where we took the “A” train to Harlem so Lin could cop. To this very day, whenever I have a dream of riding the subway with the stations barreling past and the light reflecting on the windows, I know it is a death dream.  It has personal meaning to me.

Once, Lin jacked somebody up on Twenty Second Street to get money for food for me. By that time I was pregnant.  That was a line he’d never crossed before.  I was horrified.  I could never be comfortable with anything like this.  That may have been the final act that made me want to leave although I don’t remember for sure.

I don’t remember exactly when I called Chase, but he did drive to New York to get me.

How often can one go back and revisit a moment, especially such a critical moment, in one’s life?  I am sure to do this, as emotionally charged as it is, it is really a healing thing.  I still maintain that, no matter what my life has been, I still would not change one moment of it.  It’s all about learning.  We are here to evolve.  I have had sorrows but out of that comes compassion and caring for others.

-Virginia Wald

Below is a photograph of Virginia and saxophonist Lin Halliday made by their daughter Laura MacMahon in the hospital in Chicago in 1993.  It was the second time Virginia had seen Laura and the first time Lin met her.

lin&gin_v

6 Comments

  1. Sandy Stevenson Krell Said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    Your story was so profound,thank you so much for writing it. It is a story of survival. Every time I open the blog a new memory comes blasting forth. I always hoped that when Sam wrote the “Jazz Loft Project” he would have a big party and we would all meet again. However I think the blog is even better because it gives us a chance to digest our stories. I remember you from the loft and I remember Lin and Sonny as well as Manny Durran. Over the years I have wondered what happened to all of you. Lin and Sonny were two of the most talented people that I met in the loft, as well as being so self distructive. It is hard to see such gifted people throw away their lives. I remember you being so young. I never knew what drew you to New York or where you disapeared too. It seemed our encounter was brief. I also remember Manny, who I always liked, but whose story I never new. I think we spent our first Christmas Eve with him. What happened to him? I remember that he seemed to look out for both you and Lin. I remember him saying that you were sleeping in the park and that you smelled like grass. He had a funny sense of humor.

    The picture of Lin is heart breaking. He looks much like my former husband, Jimmy did when he passed away in Jan. of this year.

    You, Virginia are a true servivor and you look great. Thank you for your story. I too have no regrets. I also feel that my experiances and the people I met in the loft enriched my life. I am not sure that you remember me but I am Jimmy Stevenson’s former wife, Sandy.

  2. ron free Said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    i would echo many of sandy’s comments, virginia. thanks for sharing your story.
    i had many powerful musical moments playing with lin at various lofts around the city.

    i’m struck by how many of us from that era, who led lives of such tragic desolation in so many ways, can look back on it all now and say we have no regrets.

    ah the vicissitudes . . .

  3. Tom Wayburn Said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:06 am

    Hi Lin,

    That was some story. Do you remember the trip Lin and I made to Cincinnati? We stayed in the basement of a house owned by Chase (who sang in a choir with my old friend Jim Brodhead when he was a kid). Rusty visited Ellen and me here in Houston a couple of years ago. We made a brief video of him talking which I will put on my website at http://dematerialism.net/rusty.mov when I find it. I am interested in a couple of things that you remember better than I do. The order in which I tenanted the little room on 23rd Street and 761 Sixth Avenue might be confused in my own mind. Also, I wrote that it was Clyde Cox’s loft next to the little room, but it may have been Sonny Carr’s loft. I think Sam would want us to straighten this out. I will talk to Ted soon. Eddie Diehl called the other day thanks to Ted.

    Tom

  4. Tom Wayburn Said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    Whoops. I said, “Hi Lin” instead of “Hi Gin”. I suppose it is an understandable mistake.

    Tom

  5. Frank Amoss Said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    Lin,

    I lived in the loft with Jimmy Stevenson durng the summer of ’61. I remember You and Lin being there a lot. It was disturbing to me to see you living on the street.

    The day you left new York I sat with you at the 5th floor window of 821, waiting for your friend to drive up with his car to take you away from that scene.

    When you drove away I was glad for you and It is such good news to know your life has turned out well.

    If Ted remembers me, tell him “Hi.”

    Frank Amoss

  6. Gin Said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    Hello Tommy,
    Of course I remember when you and Lin followed me back to Cincinnati. Chase lived until the early 80′s and then was killed in a car accident on the way to his farm in rural Ohio. Due to my writing for the “Project” I’ve come to realize what a deep debt I owe to him for looking out for me those many years ago.