The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Manhattan’s East Village With Tony Perrottet

Tony Perrottet won’t talk to me. When I call him from the lobby he picks up his phone but doesn’t utter a word. Rules dictate that he can’t speak in the Writers Room, the shared workspace where he churns out articles and books, and the first stop on our walking tour of Perrottet’s favorite neighborhood spots. Five silent seconds pass, then ten.

“Oh heeeeyyy, Rachel,” he says finally, his Australian accent infused with a Bob Dylan-esque twang. “I’ll be right down.”

Silver-haired and wearing dark blue jeans and collared shirt under a soft green sweater, a college-professor-on-sabbatical look, Perrottet ushers me into the elevator. When we reach the Room, I can see why he’s a stickler for cellphone protocol. The large loft is quiet as a coffin except for the rhythmic tapping of keyboards – and the twenty or so writers present seem cognizant of doing even that as softly as their productive fingers can manage. Back to back desks are occupied by whoever has shown up for the day, faces obscured by dividing screens. There’s a kitchen for lunch breaks and a nap room in case you need to rest up before returning to the Muses. You can come here any day of the week, any time of the day, and stay as long as you like.

At this 30-year-old institution, Perrottet has rubbed elbows with literary celebrities like Jay McInerney, as well as the famous aspiring to the literary, like Molly Ringwald and Brooke Shields. But despite the many well-known authors who work here, Perrottet says it’s actually very democratic. “They’ll let anyone in as long as you’re serious about your writing.”

And membership isn’t too hard on a writer’s often-measly budget. “It’s around $100 a month and they give you free coffee so you could actually make a profit if you had a cup every day,” he says. It’s a pretty good sales pitch, especially in a place like New York, where we cram ourselves into apartments people in other parts of the country would assign to kitchens or particularly roomy bathrooms.“Working from home would be a fiasco anywhere, but in New York there’s a particular madness because of the claustrophobia,” he says. “I couldn’t exist without this space.”

The transplanted Aussie seems to revolve around places that make life in this chaotic city bearable. He’s set up “little refuges” all over the East Village where he can go depending on his mood or work needs. After touring the Writers Room, we set off for one of them: the Italian cafe Taralluci E Vino. It’s just after 4 p.m., the perfect time for an afternoon cappuccino.

We walk east, eventually winding up on 10th Street between First and Second Avenues. Perrottet has lived on this block for over two decades in the same rent-controlled apartment, a holy grail for an artist in costly Manhattan, where so many have moved to Brooklyn or Queens or Harlem.

“Back then this was the big drug block,” he tells me. “This was in the early 1990s. Now it’s like ancient history, some fantasy world. Back then it was lined with 20 or 30 Colombian guys selling stuff. And these limousines would go by, Wall Streeters getting their cocaine.” There was a red door and blue door, one for soft drugs and one for hard drugs. The newly arrived Perrottet found the whole thing exotic – and the block was actually very safe because the Colombians didn’t want any trouble. But then the neighborhood association started making plans with the mayor and police to revamp 10th Street. In the end, the whole area was sealed off and a police car would drive back and forth all night. “The idea was to break the association that New Yorkers had with this block and drugs,” he says. “It worked. They all moved to 11th Street.”

No more than 100 yards from his apartment, we find an outdoor table at Tarallucci E Vino. As we sit, I catch a glimpse of the sugary pastries inside the café: buttery croissants, chocolate-tipped biscotti, mouth-watering miniature muffins. Perrottet strategically orders the check at the same time we request coffees. If not, he warns, it could be hours until our waitress drops in on us again. “This really is like visiting Rome because it’s totally incompetent,” he laughs. “It’s a complete mess. I like it.”

Today we’re here for the coffee, but Perrottet sometimes stops in around 6 for the aperitivo session. “For $6,” he tells me conspiratorially, “you can get this really nice glass of Lambrusco and they give you some little nibbles.” Any Manhattan writer worth his byline knows his neighborhood happy hours and it seems Perrottet is no exception.

But before we partake in one of our own, we need to pop into an East Village antique shop Perrottet frequents. Spirit and Matter is a tiny incense-heavy place stocked with tribal pieces ranging from war clubs to wooden jewelry to an intricately decorated paddle once used in courting rituals in Micronesia.

Perrottet, recognized by the bald, baritone owner, inquires if any erotic relics have recently arrived. He’s on the hunt for one for a TV show he’s involved with. The owner hasn’t got anything but suggests trying Obscura. “I hear they’ve got a mummified penis over there,” he says, as intriguing a lead as any.

It turns out Perrottet, who has stumbled upon many a story idea through casual conversations like this with locals, has already heard the rumor. And in fact he’s already seen just such an artifact.

“I’ve seen Napoleon’s.” He pauses while I consider the rather unpleasant mental image. “Allegedly.”

Still, one can never see too many mummified penises, so we push off for Obscura. The name still fits the shop’s content but not its character these days, since Obscura is the star of a Science Channel reality TV show called “Oddities.” Inside it’s a quirky collector’s dream, all statues and skeletons and strange souvenirs.

Obscura’s proprietor, like Spirit and Matter’s, knows Tony, and he knows why we’re here. He leads us into a cramped back room where the quested-for object is being housed in a shoe box-like container on packed shelves. If this was an action film starring Nicholas Cage, the thieves would have it all too easy.

The desiccated member is delicately wrapped in tissue paper. As we examine it, I comment on the small tragedy of a man’s most private parts being separated from the rest of his body. Perrottet tells me that women, too, have had pieces removed posthumously.

“The breast of Mary Magdalene is one of the great relics,” he says. “So is the heart of Joan of Arc.”

With our luckily still-beating hearts, and all appendages attached, we thank Obscura’s owner and head out. Perrottet wants to take me to Café Mogador, a Moroccan and Mediterranean restaurant where happy hour has just begun. He treats the friendly spot as his local diner, perfect for eating alone or with a visiting editor or friend. “It’s got space and excellent food and has been around forever,” he says. “The quality is amazing but it’s not expensive. And it’s very comfortable. In the East Village, there aren’t that many comfortable places. You don’t want a place filled with NYU students going nuts, which is basically what you’re fighting against.”

While we sit at the bar with tapas and white wine, a smiling waitress pops over to greet Perrottet. He apologizes on behalf of a boisterous friend he brought in last week, clearly wanting to make sure all is well in one of his chosen refuges. The waitress isn’t fussed in the slightest. “It’s all part of the job,” she says, and tells Perrottet it’s nice to see him.

We can’t stay for long, though. We’ve got a reservation at 6 and have been cautioned to be on time if we want to keep it. PDT, which stands for Please Don’t Tell, is our final stop on the Perrottet peregrinate. It’s the kind of secretive place you bring out-of-town visitors to prove Manhattan’s magic. We enter the small, dark cocktail lounge through a telephone booth. Inside, the nonstop noise of the East Village is muted entirely.

Perrottet likes the speakeasy feel here, the wide-eyed stuffed animals lining the walls, and the fact that you need a reservation. Most importantly, though, he likes the crowd control. “That’s what I’ll pay for,” he says, “a bit of elbow room, a bit of quiet.”

“They tried to get rid of me. We’re the riff raff now”

The payment at PDT comes in the form of expensive cocktails with cute names. Perrottet orders a Tompkins Square, so strong you can smell the whiskey rising off it when the bartender delivers it. I get a gin based drink called The C Cup, which feels like far too easy a joke for such a sophisticated place.

As we sip our concoctions, I ask how the East Village has changed since Perrottet first arrived.

“I’m not one of those nostalgic nuts who say it was always better years ago because there was a lot that was wrong,” he says. “But I like it because thanks to the rent control laws – it’s been gentrified obviously –it’s still like nowhere else in New York. They can’t get rid of all the old Polish guys and the Ukrainian women. They tried to get rid of me. We’re the riff raff now,” he laughs.

It’s as hard to imagine the affable Perrottet as riff raff as it is to picture him living anywhere other than the East Village. He seems not just to live in this neighborhood but to be actively part of it. It’s obvious that Perrottet would know where best to take you at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. And wherever you wound up, they would probably know him, too. There’s something comforting about realizing a person can be part of a small community in a massive city like New York. And Perrottet, an Australian ex-pat who arrived here one mild night in September some 20 years ago, most certainly has found his.

About This Wandering Writer:

Tony Perrottet is the author of four books – a collection of travel stories, “Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers” (1997); “Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists” (2002); “The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Greek Games” (2004); and “Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped” (2008). His travel stories have been widely anthologized and have been selected four times for the “Best American Travel Writing” series. He is also a regular television guest on the History Channel, where he has spoken about everything from the Crusades to the birth of disco.

[Photo Credits: Lesley Thalander and Rachel Friedman]