Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking
‘West Side Story’ Amid the Laundry
by Penelope Green
The New York Times
June 24, 2009
Just after 9 p.m. on June 17, the third installment of the High Line Park Renegade Cabaret was held on Patty Heffley’s fourth-floor fire escape. There were colored lanterns, and a festive array of undergarments hung from the railings.
Ms. Heffley, 55, a former punk rock photographer, had staged a laundry “installation,” as she put it, to bolster the live performance she was hosting. Elizabeth Soychak, a jazz singer and professional organizer who gives her age as “permanently 39,” wore a 1950s moss green chiffon dress and waited while Ms. Heffley, in black, introduced her.
“This is in response to 31 years of obscurity,” Ms. Heffley announced from the fire escape. “Now, every day there are thousands of people looking in my window. We’re not here to celebrate, we’re here to exploit. Welcome to the Renegade Cabaret.” Then Ms. Soychak launched into an a cappella rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Early Autumn.”
Location, as all New Yorkers know, is destiny, and Ms. Heffley is embracing hers with gusto.
Since 1978, she has been living in a West 20th Street loft, yards away from the elevated track-turned-park-and-public-works-darling known as the High Line. Though the High Line extends from Gansevoort Street north to West 34th, it has been planted and paved only as far north as 20th Street; a gate there bars people from walking farther, and visitors bottleneck at that point.
Furthermore, though the ambient lighting of the path was conceived by the High Line’s design team to glow mistily from the meadow beds on either side of the walkway, the lights planted on top of the stairway exit were installed by contractors who happened to point the harsh white beams right at Ms. Heffley’s windows.
Like it or not, Ms. Heffley’s living room has become a stage, and her fire escape — her front porch — its proscenium arch.
Ms. Heffley, now a freelance multimedia consultant, moved to New York from Denver 31 years ago, eager to photograph Manhattan’s punk scene. She chose her apartment (rent, $360, now $841) because it was a place where she could make a lot of noise.
The High Line was an agreeable presence. At first, a single locomotive rumbled by once or twice a week, but that eventually stopped. Then weeds began to grow. Ms. Heffley always wanted to plant flowers, but never found a way. “I tried filling a water balloon with seeds,” she said. “But it’s farther than you think.”
Days before the park’s opening on June 9, Ms. Heffley called her friend Ms. Soychak and said: “I’ve got to do something. Can you sing a few songs?”
Opening night was magical, both agreed. Ms. Soychak performed two three-song “micro sets,” as she called them, to a warmly appreciative audience. By laundry day, however, Ms. Heffley was panicking. Her loft has a washing machine, but no dryer; for three decades, she’s used the fire escape.
“I realized I can’t go out in my get-up,” Ms. Heffley said, pulling out her typical laundry day attire: orange gingham boxers and a fuchsia nightie. “So I put on a red tutu, a red hoodie and sunglasses. I proceeded to put my laundry out as usual, but with the underwear at the back.”
Soon, she was staging the laundry: drying the real stuff late at night, and by day, hanging goofier items like ruffled panties and leopard prints. One day someone called to her from the path, “I hope you don’t lose your energy for the laundry.”
Ms. Heffley was uplifted by the encouragement. “I’ll be putting other kinds of stuff out there, too. I have lots of ideas.” The Cabaret now has a Facebook page, and a Web site is under construction.
AT last week’s performance, David Hausen and Rocky Ziegler, filmmakers out for an evening stroll, listened happily from a park bench. Mr. Hausen asked, “Do they take requests?”
Nearby, a man in a khaki vest was singing along. “I know what time it is now,” he warbled as Ms. Soychak performed a Rodgers and Hart classic.
At 10 p.m., closing time for the park and the cabaret, Ms. Heffley and Ms. Soychak bid the audience goodnight. “If you see the party patio lanterns lit,” Ms. Heffley told them, “you’ll know something is going to go on when it gets dark.”
Robert Hammond, a founder of the Friends of the High Line and a member of the audience, remarked, “This is what we wanted,” referring to the cabaret. “It is going to keep it wild more than that will,” he continued, pointing to a patch of wildflowers.
As for the lights that shine like kliegs into Ms. Heffley’s windows, he said ruefully, “We screwed up on those.” But he brightened when told that she had said they were good for a stage. The Renegade Cabaret, he said, “is born of a mistake, just like the park.”