Long before the Lower East Side became the land of cafes and condos, it was a blank canvas for the city’s most determined squatter and his ever-expanding community garden.
Adam Purple is a cantankerous old man who refuses to become a martyr. He was born eighty-two years ago in the farmlands of Independence, Missouri, but if you ask him where he is from, he has been known to say: “the seventh planet, Uranus, and if you don’t know where your anus is, you are definitely part of The Problem.” He is thin, slightly hunched, with a long white beard reaching nearly to his navel and pale, wrinkled skin. He is fond of wearing purple clothing, but there was a period in his life where he refused to wear the color as a personal protest against the city of New York. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and has taught at high schools, junior colleges, and Purdue University. At the Gazette and Daily in York, Pennsylvania, he once worked the police beat before seeing things that soured him on both the police and mainstream life. In the mid ’60s, he took drugs and joined the migrant hippie culture, traveling to places like Santa Cruz, Big Sur and Dixon, New Mexico. Since moving to New York City in 1968, he has gone by many names, including Rev. Les Ego, General Zen of Headquarters Intergalactic Psychic Police, and John Peter Zenger II. Most people, however, know him as Adam — the man who built The Garden of Eden and lived there with Eve on the Lower East Side.
* * *
Part One: Genesis
“You start by assuming that they must be wrong, judging them by the very code you reject. ”
-Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Between Forsyth and Eldridge Street, just south of Stanton Street, in an area of New York City that was sick, grey and crumbling, there was once a brightly blooming oasis known as The Garden of Eden. It seemed impossible for a garden to exist in a place like that, the soil poisoned by chemicals, the neighborhood littered with rubble and trash, yet there it was, by something of a miracle. Spring, summer and fall, Adam and Eve tended to The Garden, planting and trimming various flowers, fruits and vegetables, occasionally taking a break to enjoy the shade of a black walnut tree or to pluck a plump red strawberry. Neighbors passing on the street would often stop to puzzle over the odd couple, dressed head-to-toe in tie-dyed purple clothing and wearing mirrored, violet-tinted sunglasses — aviators for Adam, circular John Lennon-style frames for Eve. The couple encouraged the onlookers to come into the garden and help themselves to a fresh cucumber or a handful of black raspberries or just take a moment to sit and find enlightenment amongst the sweetly scented flowers. For many of these neighbors, time in the garden was a reprieve from the chaos and filth of their surroundings. But for others, suspicions were high about what it was, exactly, that Adam and Eve were up to.
If you ask people who knew Adam during the roughly decade-long existence of The Garden — from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s — most remember a kind man intent on providing a better quality of life, not just for those living on the Lower East Side, but for all mankind. When engaged in conversation, he would often begin espousing a hybrid religion-philosophy he called General [Z]enlightenment — a mix of Zen Buddhism, the science-fiction writing of Robert Heinlein, and the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Adam claimed to hold the role of Chief Biocybernetic Reprogramer from the Headquarters, Intergalatic Psychic Police (HIPP) of Uranus, sent for the purpose of L.E.A.R.N (Let’s Erase Everything and Reprogram Now) for SpecieSurvival by the year 1984. It was his contention that society was fouling itself with pollution, radiation, plastic toxins and sewage from the flush toilet, and that if we didn’t undergo something he called R(apid)Evolution to change the way we interact with ourselves and our environment, extinction was a very real possibility.
While his teachings were certainly cryptic, they were, perhaps, not entirely crazy. His call for a reorganization of society for the purpose of environmental preservation was pretty much the party line for the radical environmentalist movement still riding the psychic tsunami of LSD and late ’60s spirituality. A study of Adam’s notes, collected by him along with nearly every article written about The Garden in a self-published book called Life with Les(s) Ego, suggests the mind of a highly read scholar, a horticultural savant, and an obsessive personality dedicated to his cause. However, there are also signs that Adam’s distrust of society existed at a level far beneath that of cultural zeitgeist, almost like he had intimate knowledge that despite his best efforts, those he shared the earth with would one day turn against him.
The difficulty in really getting to know Adam as a person was that when he wasn’t talking about The Garden or SpecieSurvival, he would rarely give a straight answer to a question. One of the many names he acquired over the years, though one of the only ones he didn’t give to himself, was “The Riddle Man.” When someone would approach him while he was at work in The Garden to ask what his name was or to inquire about his age, Adam would respond by saying that he didn’t have a name and that his age was currently three, but next year he would be two. When reporter John Lewis from the New York Sunday News attempted to find out where Adam was born, the Riddle Man replied, simply: “In a bed. I was really too young to remember.”
Due to Adam’s insistence on living in the present and his general refusal to discuss the past, there are only bits and pieces of information that connect the man born David Wilkie in Independence, Missouri, to Adam from The Garden of Eden. He was the middle child of seven born to Richard and Juanita Wilkie. Richard was a master machinist, a carpenter and a blacksmith, among other things. Juanita was a seamstress, gardener and bookkeeper. Adam revered his parents’ do-it-yourself attitude and has noted the import of being raised in a town called Independence.
There were no indications that Adam would live anything other than a traditional American childhood until his brother’s appendix ruptured and he was rushed to the hospital. Adam, only nine at the time, had to stand by as his eleven-year-old brother died, because, as he told a New York Times reporter, “the doctors wouldn’t operate on him until my father got there with the money.”
Three years later, Adam’s world was again irreparably altered when he witnessed his father die of electrocution while trying to put out a fire at his machine shop.
The seeds for rebellion against a society that would let a young boy die for lack of money and in which a modern reliance like electricity could take away your father in the blink of an eye were likely planted during these traumatic childhood experiences. But for years, Adam appeared to maintain a normal life. His transcripts from Kansas State Teachers College show that he received mostly A’s and excelled in subjects like English literature and advanced calculus. He went on to receive a master’s degree in journalism, and taught at schools and colleges throughout the country. However, his job at the Gazette and Daily — where he witnessed cops siccing dogs on black people when he worked the police beat — would be the last time he entertained thoughts of leading a mainstream life.
In the mid ’60s, when Adam was in his thirties, he followed the transient counterculture, traveling up and down the West Coast dropping acid and writing. He privately published three editions of a manifesto dubbed the International Peace/Disarmament Directory. In 1967, he moved to Matraville, Australia, calling himself a “nuclear mignorant” and active opponent of U.S.-France nuclear testing in the South Pacific and U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. While there, he began working on what he called “an accidental inquiry, perhaps mystical, into the non-Aristotelian (non-linear) structure of semantic ‘truth.’” The result was a tiny book — approximately one inch by one inch — titled Zentences. The pages of the book were split in half horizontally, Dutch-door style, so that words or phrases at the top of one page could be matched to those at the bottom of another to create — similar to Gutenberg’s movable type — an exponential number of movable thought units. For example, “Reality” might be paired with “is uttered nonsense!” while “Nudity” could be matched to “is divine expression.” The book, credited to his pseudonym Les Ego, would become the first step toward General [Z]enlightenment for R(apid) Evolution and SpecieSurvival, and would bring Adam to New York City in search of a publisher.
It was a random book, so Adam zeroed in on the publisher who seemed to specialize in such things: Random House. They wavered and Adam was forced to pursue other methods of distribution. He rented a month-to-month apartment at 184 Forsyth Street and would ride his bike to Central Park each morning to hand out his book to anyone enlightened enough to not wear leather clothing. He had taken to dressing himself entirely in purple—the color of royalty, invisibility and magic mushrooms—and was gaining a reputation as an eccentric for walking through the park offering to put people on his back so he could “straighten their spines and blow their minds.”
It was in Central Park, while he was handing out books, straightening spines and blowing minds, that Adam met Eve. While little is known of Adam’s past, almost nothing is known about Eve’s — not even her real name. All we know is that she was born in Brooklyn and was sixteen years old when she and Adam first met. Adam must have succeeded in blowing her mind, however, for it wasn’t long after that first meeting that she moved in with him on Forsyth Street.
184 Forsyth was a six-story tenement building in what was known in the early twentieth century as the “immigrant ghetto,” and which was still, in the 1970s, one of the most run-down neighborhoods in the city. Adam and Eve shared a first-floor apartment and would often encounter junkies moving back and forth between the abandoned tenements on Eldridge Street searching for a quiet place to shoot up. The lot between the tenements on Eldridge and Adam and Eve’s rear window on Forsyth — officially recognized as Block 421 of Manhattan by the City of New York — was testament to the neglect plaguing the neighborhood. Garbage was piled up in the backyard from tenants tossing their trash from the upper windows, rusty fire escapes hung limp from the backs of the buildings and lurid graffiti covered the soot-coated brick. The children of the tenements were forced to play in the trash-strewn basement pits while their mothers’ poppy-glazed eyes stared aimlessly through dirty windows. Almost no sunlight entered Block 421. It was a dark and hopeless place.
In the second half of 1973, the city tore down the two abandoned tenements fronting Eldridge Street, and morning sunlight came cascading into Adam and Eve’s backyard. The buildings collapsed in a cloud of brick dust and Adam stood at his rear window watching it settle. When the demolition team had finished and vacated the area, he went out to survey the rubble.
A key element in Adam’s call for conservation and radical environmental transformation was the idea that “a society’s wealth is measured in what it throws away.” Nearly all of Adam and Eve’s meager belongings were things they had lifted from dumpsters or found abandoned. Their apartment was cluttered with bike parts, sheet metal, lumber, glass jars filled with hinges and screws. The thousands of books they had collected were stacked against an exposed brick wall. Even the purple clothes they wore were made from discarded articles Eve had stitched together.
Standing amongst the remains of the demolition — whole bricks, brickbats, brick sand, foundation stones, wood, gravel, sheets of galvanized iron, window lintels and pieces of porcelain tub tops — it wasn’t immediately clear what purpose these waste items could serve. With the back of their apartment now exposed to the street on the east side, one of Adam’s first thoughts was their safety. He had read about an ancient Chinese security system by which crickets were used to alert residents of intruders, but in order to attract crickets, there would need to be plants. His thoughts then turned to the children with nowhere to play but the garbage heaps. He studied the rubble once more and a vision began to crystallize in his head. With the brick sand and wood, he had nearly everything he needed to make soil. If he had soil, he could plant a garden.
An experienced journeyman, Adam understood better than most the ancient folk saying that “the longest journey starts with a single step,” and work on The Garden began with the simple process of sorting through the rubble. Brick is composed primarily of clay, and clay is elemental in creating soil. So he gathered brick sand to filter and turn into topsoil. Unpainted wood could be burned to produce potash, another key ingredient in making soil. This was also collected and put into piles. Little of the inorganic debris served a purpose in soil production but, nevertheless, everything was sifted through and organized for a variety of future uses.
Adam and Eve considered power tools or petrol-fueled vehicles of any kind counterrevolutionary and refused to use them. This greatly increased the time and manpower necessary to remove the debris. Using only basic tools like rakes, hoes, shovels, a wheelbarrow, a sledgehammer, a hacksaw, a crowbar and a common railroad pick — along with, Adam liked to joke, “cast-iron backs with hinges in ‘em’” — in one day, one person could clear approximately twenty-five square feet of rubble. The rubble left from the tenements on Eldridge Street covered roughly five thousand square feet. With winter approaching, it would be many months before they were ready to plant.
Despite being a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, removing the rubble was only the initial step in growing a garden. Clay and potash alone do not make soil — Adam would need to find fertilizer. Having spent many pleasant afternoons in Central Park, he was familiar with the large quantities of manure left by the horse-drawn carriages. Not able to let even fecal matter go to waste, he decided to transport the horse manure from the park to use as fertilizer in The Garden.
In the spring of 1974, Adam and Eve began their daily ritual of biking the three and half miles from the garden to the park and back again to scoop up horse shit. Adam had modified a bike trailer by adding a shopping cart handle and a plastic milk crate to make it easier to transport the free fertilizer. The trailer could support a typical day’s load of about sixty pounds.
Back at Forsyth Street, Adam mixed the horse manure with the potash and the brick sand to produce highly fertile, homemade topsoil. With the rubble cleared, the next step was to shovel a foot and a half beneath street level to sift out nails, scrap metal and loose change. Once this was done, the “instant super topsoil” was layered on top of a gravel subsoil to produce arable land about a foot deep. Adam called this process the “maxi-method,” not to be confused with the “mini-method” where he would dig a square-foot hole in the ground, fill it with sand, weeds, food scraps and his own vegetarian feces, to produce what the Chinese called “night soil.” But due to the limitations of human bowel function, “night soil” was only producible in small quantities.
Just about the time Adam and Eve had finished converting the first two tenement lots into farmable land — approximately a year after the buildings had been demolished — another tenement was razed to the north of The Garden. Again, the pair began the process of clearing away and organizing the debris, but with the buildings collapsing around them and the neighborhood deteriorating rapidly, it wasn’t long before questions arose about the future stability of their home at 184 Forsyth.
There were no plans to demolish the building. Structurally speaking, 184 Forsyth was sound enough to stand for many more years. Few tenants, however, shared Adam and Eve’s commitment to upkeep, and the inside of the building suffered from serious neglect. The landlord, a survivor of the death camps in Germany, knew when to get out of a bad situation. He abandoned the property before the end of the year and appointed Adam the new superintendent. Many of the residents followed the landlord out, but a few stayed now that they were no longer required to pay the $50 a month for rent. Ownership of the building shifted over to the City of New York, which was suffering from a severe recession and, for the time being, appeared uninterested in the property.
During the winter, Adam read books on gardening and radical city planning while also helping Eve renovate sections of the building. In the spring of 1975, the first seeds were planted in the Garden. By 1976, flowers bloomed, vegetables sprouted and crickets rubbed their wings together outside the couple’s rear window.
Using the salvaged scraps of sheet metal to shape the flowerbeds and whole bricks and gravel to make paths between them, Adam had designed The Garden to expand out from a double yin-yang pattern at the center into a series of broken concentric circles. He planted purple basil for the two yins and sweet alyssum for the two yangs. In the surrounding flowerbeds, he planted an array of colorful flowers — tulips, roses, crocuses, and hyacinths — along with plants producing cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, beans, strawberries and asparagus. Corn grew around the edge of The Garden to a height of more than six feet. Black raspberry bushes looped through carefully placed mattress springs and hung over a waist-high stone wall. Fruit and nut trees broke up through the ground, as did one rare Chinese Empress tree that had just appeared one day, quite mysteriously.
Each year, more buildings collapsed or were torn down, and The Garden expanded to take their place. Adam had chosen to build The Garden in the shape of a circle in continuity with his obsession of exponential expansion — a circle’s area increases with the square of its radius. It was almost eerie how when The Garden would push up against the edge of a building, the next year the building would be gone and The Garden would have added another couple of rings. In total, the city demolished four buildings adjacent to 184 Forsyth. From an initial size of 5,000 square feet in 1975, The Garden grew by approximately 2,500 square feet per year, reaching a final size of just over 15,000 square feet. It appeared poised to take over the city, knocking down whatever buildings stood in its path.
Citywide expansion of The Garden was, indeed, Adam and Eve’s goal. It was their intention to continue working on the project until it could be seen from outer space. If you were to stand on the roof of 184 Forsyth and look down on The Garden, you could see that sections of it spelled out the words “SpecieSurvival” and “R(apid)evolution.” The Garden of Eden was another step toward General [Z]enlightenment.
To further explain the role it would play, Adam crafted—in his trademark mix of clever wordplay and unusual symbols—an informational scroll that he and Eve handed out in Central Park. The scroll stated:
Without waiting another 2,000 years for institutionalized Christianity or Judaism to build or rebuild the Garden of Eden (Paradise of Pleasures), we have taken psychic inspiration from General Zenlightenme(a)nt to ‘plug into’organic communication from Uranus, to wit:
SpecieSurvival is more and more a race ‘twixt Zenlightenme(a)t and Extinction….”
The Garden of Eden is one aspect of Biocybernetic Fun & Games to L.E.A.R.N (Let’s Erase Everything and Reprogram Now) for SpecieSurvival by 1984—from the Seventh Planet, Uranus. And if you do not know where your anus is, you are definitely part of the Problem.
Uranus was Adam’s winking metaphor to the fact the most people had no idea of the whereabouts of either the seventh planet or the Earth’s anus — i.e. where our society’s pollution, radiation, sewage, etc. originate. Politicians and bureaucrats were “ignoranuses” suffering from total ignorance of the anus. But perhaps there was still hope for the rest of us.
With the expansion of The Garden, Adam and Eve’s workload increased to the point where they needed to solicit help. The couple wrote an article for the Yipster Times requesting, “at least 30 full-time vegetarian gardeners.” Those with skills useful in renovating the building at 184 Forsyth were also asked to join, and rooms were available to those who wanted them. Initially, several people responded to the article and a few moved in to the rooms above Adam and Eve. None of them stayed for very long. Eve admitted to New York magazine’s Norman Green that for the most part, “people aren’t interested in vegetarian urban farming.” It was also rumored that Adam could be a difficult person to live with and that few could follow his stringent rules and strict daily regiment.
Just because the community didn’t want to help in The Garden didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy it. During the spring and summer months — when Adam could be found pushing a wheelbarrow around with his shirt off, revealing the sun-browned, sinewy upper body of a healthy fifty-year-old man — he had plenty of visitors. Neighbors would come by to pick fresh fruits and vegetables. Teachers would bring classes of young immigrant students who had grown up on the Lower East Side and had never seen things like butterflies, earthworms and fruiting plants. Passersby would just wander in to have a look around.
That something so beautiful could exist in a neighborhood so inundated with crime, drugs, poverty and neglect continued to amaze those who lived there. A convicted felon who goes by the name Rambo Sloane explained in a letter to Adam written from the Auburn Correctional Facility that when he first stumbled into The Garden, he had been in a shootout with a Puerto Rican gang and “thought [he] got hit and went to heaven.” A resident of a rundown tenement adjacent to The Garden told a reporter from the Daily News: “We look out these windows, man, and we see a rainbow.”
There were also those who distrusted The Garden’s apparent ability to convert building rubble into leafy plants. They watched the strange man with his long grey beard and electric purple clothing work The Garden with his equally strange wife and determined, as journalist Norman Green put it, “supernatural forces [were] at work.”
In particular, it was the peculiar double ying-yang symbol at the center of The Garden that spooked them. The way the sweet alyssum reflected moon rays on a dark summer’s night, it was like The Garden was sending a signal into space.
In fact, the double ying-yang did represent an aspect of Adam and Eve’s life that few were familiar with. Where a single ying-yang represents the balance and union of man and woman, the double ying-yang represented the interconnection of two men and two women. It was the symbol for a group Adam had begun in the back of a school bus in Santa Cruz, California during the late ’60s known as the Catholic Union Mission, or C.U.M.
The Catholic Union Mission’s goal was to stage World Orgies I, II, and III to counteract the damage done by the first two World Wars and to avoid a third. In preparation for the World Orgies, the group held smaller sessions where two-person sex was swapped out for group sex and meaningful fucking could result in a mystical or transcendental experience. Group members were encouraged to confront and release all sexual hang-ups. LSD was often involved. Sexual combinations included man-woman, woman-woman, but not man-man. Strangers, capitalists, drug dealers and those with the clap were not invited to join. The orgies were another aspect of General [Z]enlightenment.
In November of 1978, Eve gave birth to a girl named Nova Dawn. That winter, the three of them huddled together on a large bed in a room with a wood stove, Adam reading and writing and Eve nursing the newborn. The last few years had brought significant media attention to the couple and their work in The Garden. While pleased that people were noticing, it irritated Adam that many journalists couldn’t seem to get the facts right. Inventing the pseudonym John Peter Zenger II — a tribute to the famous American journalist whose landmark case allowed that truth was defense against charges of libel — Adam perused the articles written about him before sending back a copy to the author annotated with the appropriate corrections. These corrections would often be small or seemingly insignificant, but it was important to Adam that there be no mistakes. For General [Z]enlightenment, people needed to receive the right message.
In a contracting universe, the light spectrum shifts toward violet. Adam knew this. For years, he had felt the universe shrinking. R(apid)Evolution for SpecieSurvival by 1984: the date was likely a reference to what he felt was a movement toward an Orwellian society, but if he was speaking of the deadline by which the city and his community needed to come around to his way of thinking for the sake of the Garden, he was surprisingly prescient. The “ignoranuses” in government had started to take an interest in the Garden. That interest was about to increase exponentially.
* * *
Part Two: Exodus
“Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.”
-George Orwell, 1984
In 1979, when there were trees in The Garden tall enough for songbirds to flit between their branches, four million dollars were appropriated to build low-and-moderate income housing on Block 421. Initiated by city councilmember Miriam Friedlander and executed under the auspices of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the so-called “Esperenza Project” called for the construction of 189 housing units and the destruction of The Garden of Eden.
An old-fashioned anarchist, Adam was fond of paraphrasing Thoreau’s call to “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” It appeared that Adam had created enough counter-friction that the machine found it necessary to grind him out.
Faced with what would become a seven-year battle to save The Garden, Adam would no longer have the help of Eve. During that same year, the remaining tenants at 184 Forsyth Street had banded together to protest Adam’s request that each of them supply $40 to heat the building — a service the city no longer provided. Other factors may have been involved, but regardless, the protest resulted in the tenants vacating the building. Eve joined them, taking Nova Dawn with her.
In October 1981, HUD formally approved the project and a deadline of May 1984 was set for its implementation. In March of 1982, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs certified Adam as an artist, and he sued the city for two million dollars for violating a law that made it illegal to destroy works of art—subsequently delaying construction. In August of 1984, Justice Bruce Wright of New York’s Supreme Court in Manhattan dismissed the suit, rejecting Adam’s claim that he was denied “due process.” On February 14, 1985, Adam received a memo from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development notifying him that he had intruded into property that he did not own and advised him that he would be required to quit the area known as The Garden of Eden on or before February 25th. It was signed by an official from the Division of Relocation Operations.
Adam refused to abandon The Garden and the controversy consumed the community. “People not Petunias” was the rally cry for those in favor of housing. Adam and his supporters countered by saying that the city council was employing a technique of “divide and conquer.” When the case went to a deciding trial near the end of August, 1985, the chairwoman of the Joint Planning Council, Margarita Lopez, testified in reference to The Garden that, “our people don’t go there,” because, “they was scared of the drug dealers there and they don’t want to be killed.” Adam accused Ms. Lopez of lying under oath—a claim that appears to be supported by the numerous letters written to Councilmember Friedlander and Mayor Koch by neighborhood residents on behalf of Adam and The Garden.
Over a thousand people signed a petition to stave off The Garden’s destruction. Politicians, professors, students, artists, government workers, television reporters, and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg all wrote letters asking that The Garden be saved. It wouldn’t matter. The city had made up its mind.
On January 8, 1986, Adam watched from the sixth floor fire escape of his building as bulldozers and trucks razed The Garden of Eden. When they were finished, all that remained was the singular Chinese Empress tree.
In the weeks following the destruction of The Garden, purple footprints began popping up all over Manhattan. The footprints wove a trail as far south as Wall Street and as far north as Columbus Circle. They lead back to the site where The Garden once bloomed and many people assumed the Purple Man was up to his old tricks. However, when a reporter for People Weekly tracked down the mysterious footprint maker, he discovered a supporter of The Garden named George who had attached foam footprints to the side of a purple paint drum and was rolling it around the city. Adam was nowhere to be seen.
Between 1979 and 1999, Adam was the only resident at 184 Forsyth. Con Edison had disconnected the building in 1981, and the city no longer provided any services. For eighteen years, Adam had to live without easy access to heat, water or electricity. He spent most of this time collecting articles written about The Garden and annotating them with his own account to create a book. His role in the public eye greatly diminished and, for a while, he even stopped wearing the color purple.
In 1999, the City of New York dealt Adam a final blow by evicting him and demolishing 184 Forsyth to construct a housing project sponsored by the New York Society for the Deaf. The city had been billing Adam since 1980 for all twenty-four rooms in the building, and it was estimated that at the time of his eviction, he owed over $300,000 in back rent.
Without a home, Adam bounced around a few tenements before going to stay with a friend in New Jersey. While there, he finished off the last strain of black raspberries from The Garden in a cup of tea. Then, it seemed, he disappeared entirely.
* * *
Part Three: Revelations
“Don’t judge half-done work.”
-Folk saying quoted by Adam’s father, the late Richard Wilkie, Sr.
The chain that locks together the double refrigerator doors guarding Adam’s room in a two-story building next to the Williamsburg Bridge was undone. Through the thin space between the doors, I could see that the light was off. I hesitated for a moment before giving few gentle knocks. There was rustling from inside. I announced my name through the door and said that I had been reading his book, Life With Les(s) Ego, and was hoping to talk with him about it. After a long pause, he informed me that he was listening to the news, but if I waited, I could speak with him when it had finished.
I was standing in the back room of a workshop, surrounded by milk crates full of tools and spare bike parts. The workshop is run by a bicycle co-op with ties to the squat houses that populated the Lower East Side during the ’80s and ’90s. When I’d first moved to New York City in the fall of 2012, I had rented a room on the second floor of the co-op. The room had a sloping floor and was built behind a brick chimney that had been eaten away by mice. There was enough space for a double bed, a bookshelf and a desk. While living there, I would occasionally run into the enigmatic old man who lived on the first floor but, for reasons I couldn’t quite place, there was something about him that made me nervous and I had never ventured a conversation.
The first time I had heard Adam talk about The Garden of Eden was at the opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces (MoRUS) on Avenue C between 9th and 10th street in December of 2012. Wearing purple plaid and a purple ski hat, he sat on the stage in the basement of the notorious C Squat — a dimly lit room famous for punk shows in the ’80s and decorated with graffiti murals—while a movie about The Garden made by photographer Harvey Wang played on a giant projector behind him. Adam would stop the movie occasionally to clarify a detail or identify someone who had double-crossed him. When the movie had finished, he fielded a few questions from the audience and was then hurried offstage, a somewhat unceremonious departure considering the event was put on, at least in part, to celebrate his life’s work. He marched slowly through the crowd carrying a tall flagpole with a neon-orange bicycle flag at the top, up the stairs, and out onto the street where a group of squatters were gathered around a fire burning in a charcoal grill. He took a moment to attach the flag to the bike, then rode off into the darkness.
* * *
After about twenty minutes, when the news had finished, Adam opened the door. His room was small, about the size of a jail cell, containing a single window at the back covered by a black curtain. On the floor were plastic bottles full of water and along the right wall was a shelf stacked with canned food. On the left side, just inside the door, a steep set of stairs led up to a lofted single bed. A beat-up silver Macintosh laptop was plugged in and resting on a low table.
The space was too small for two people to sit comfortably so we moved to an office space in the back of the building. Adam was dressed in a pair of worn black slacks, a faded plaid shirt and a pair of two-toned blue sneakers. On his head he wore a black baseball cap covered with a dirty purple ski hat. A long white beard fell from his hollow cheeks in a series of delicate waves. His blue eyes studied me with an intensity that hinted at a former brightness, but they were now pale and cloudy like two tiny pieces of sea glass. He lowered himself carefully into a swivel chair and asked me what was on my mind.
“I’ve been reading your book,” I said, pulling from my bag a thick stack of 8-and-½-by-11-inch photocopied pages bound with a plastic binding comb. Before I could finish the sentence, Adam took the book from me and began examining the cover.
“Where did you get this?” he asked. “It’s a rare book you know. Only made about a hundred of them.”
I told him I had gotten it from a library in Manhattan.
“Now that’s a good library,” he said, leafing through the pages. Most of the print was too small for him to read so he went back to his room to retrieve a pair of reading glasses and a piece of magnifying glass. When he returned, he again immersed himself in the pages of the book, occasionally chuckling at his own wordplay and clever acronyms.
“Prove to me that there is no such thing as the Psychic Police,” he said. “You can’t. You can’t prove the nonexistence of anything.”
When he got to pictures of The Garden, he paused, then said: “This took a lot of work, you know.”
As he started to tell me stories of The Garden’s creation, I could sense his mind getting lost in a happier time. I asked him if, when he started The Garden, he had any idea the city would eventually take it away from him.
“I always had a feeling. In the back of my mind, I knew,” he said softly, with just a hint of Midwestern twang in his voice.
“Why do you think they did it?” I asked.
“For not bowing to their omnipotence. Not bowing to their authority. They didn’t own those lots.” His voice grew louder and more definitive. I asked him if he had committed any crime. He waited a moment before answering.
“No. I didn’t do anything wrong. Let me show you something.”
He flipped to a page in the book containing an article written by the famous environmentalist Bill McKibben for 7 Days magazine. In the article, McKibben questions the precedent Adam was setting in creating a garden without asking the city. McKibben wondered if there was really a conscious conspiracy against Adam. Along the side of the article, Adam had handwritten a scathing response to Bill. He asked me to read it aloud to him.
In the response, Adam calls McKibben “a puppy-dog press lackey” and questions his character. It finishes by stating: “If Bill would just once bury his shit in the ground instead of selling it to 7 Days, he would achieve some spiritual integrity AND wisdom!”
Adam laughed as I read. “Bill probably wasn’t too happy with me,” he hypothesized.
I found Adam more agreeable than I had expected, and was starting to enjoy spending time with him, but he had a masterful way of turning the conversation away from introspection. I asked how it felt to watch something you loved get destroyed.
“What they did was a human rights violation,” he said indignantly. “By what rights does anyone have to do that? I tried to contact the United Nations. And bullshit. You know who gave the land for the United Nations building? Take a wild guess. Rockefeller. You know who built the Knesset in Israel? The Rothschilds.”
He asked if I was aware that the Japanese have an Orwellian-style Thought Police. I wasn’t. He told me that sometime I should look up the book Shadows of Hiroshima and turn to chapter three, paragraph one.
His ability to reference particular books was remarkable for an eighty-two-year-old man. He admitted with sadness that he doesn’t have his library anymore, but that he had started a group on Yahoo called SpecieSurvivaLibrary where there is a record of all the books he had ever owned and read.
When 184 Forsyth was destroyed, Adam was forced into a somewhat nomadic lifestyle and couldn’t very well carry thousands of books with him. “One thing leads to another,” he said, and then told me that after leaving his friend’s home in New Jersey, he had traveled down to Maryland. He paid a thousand dollars up front for five months’ rent, but was kicked out before the payment period ended. He claims he was conned by the landlord, since all he received in return for the money was five hand-written receipts.
He returned to New York and worked on a crop farm upstate that he considered “a disorganized mess,” and “probably some sort of scam.” Eventually making his way back to the city, he moved from place to place until the painter Allen Hirsch helped him find a room at the bike co-op.
I questioned whether he ever saw Eve or Nova Dawn anymore. He stared at the floor for a while. When he looked up, his eyes betrayed contemplative remorse.
“It’s painful to live with someone for five years and just have her leave,” he said. “Her family, they’re Catholic. I’m not. They aren’t religiously intolerant, but they won’t tolerate me. They come to New York saying that they are here to see family. Well, I’m family.”
I asked him what Eve’s real name was and he couldn’t remember.
Despite no mention of it in any of the articles or writing collected in Life With Les(s) Ego, it came out that Adam had been married before meeting Eve. His mood lifting, he informed me that there was a Facebook page for The Garden, and that his daughter from his first marriage had posted on the page that she was proud to have him as a father.
“I wrote back that I am proud to be her dad. I don’t know, maybe one day that pride will manifest itself,” he said, in a way that suggested that it was his daughter’s pride he was talking about.
Reverting back to his more antagonist nature, he put an end to the topic by saying, “If someone thinks you’re the scum of the Earth and doesn’t want to talk to you, at some point you just have to say fuck it and move on.”
In Harvey Wang’s movie, Adam admits to wishing the city had killed him and left The Garden. When I asked him what the Garden would look like without him, he replied, simply, “It wouldn’t.”
“Do you still think it would be better if you were dead?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t commit suicide,” he offered. I have too much fun doing what I’m doing.”
He flipped to the back page of Life with Les(s) Ego and showed me a flyer calling for a World General Strike on January 2nd. “I’ve moved the date to May 1st,” he said, “but if people can take one day to stop doing all the things they’re used to doing that hurt the environment, how many days would it take to put an end to the system?”
“There’s a big-time crash coming,” he said somberly. “I don’t know if it’s going to be next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, but I won’t live long enough to see it all, but I’ll live to see some of it.”
I had noticed a bathroom next to his room when I was waiting for him to finish listening to the news. I asked if he had adapted to using the flush toilet.
“I have to,” he said. “There’s nowhere for me to bury my shit anymore.”
It was approaching eight p.m., and the spring twilight outside the open office door was darkening rapidly. He informed me that soon it would be time to take his vitamins. Turning over the page calling for a General Strike, he said with a puzzled expression that the last page was missing. Somebody had apparently removed it.
Before handing me back the book, he invited me to join the SpecieSurvivaLibrary.
“If you think this book is interesting,” he said with a sly smile. “Wait until you see what’s in the library. That will really blow your mind.”
* * *
Sam von Mayrhauser began drawing when he was 2, studied studio art at Skidmore College and now does portraits, tattoo designs, logo designs, cartoons and live caricaturing at a local amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut.