New York Times/ N.Y. / REGION
Old Mariner, With Rhymes and Love for East Village
By COREY KILGANNON JAN. 8, 2016
The poet Phillip Giambri at Grassroots Tavern on St. Marks Place, one of his frequent haunts.
Photo Credit: Nicole Craine for The New York Times
It was after noon on Monday, so Phillip Giambri, 74, put on his pork-pie hat and walked from his apartment on St. Marks Place to Grassroots Tavern, a joint with low ceilings, cheap drinks and a pervasive tang of stale beer that smelled like tough, old New York. A barfly-turned-writer who recites his stories at open-mike sessions in East Village bars, Mr. Giambri bills himself as the Ancient Mariner, being a Navy veteran and as relentless a storyteller as Coleridge’s salty narrator. “Plus, it sounds better than The Old Guy, which is what people were calling me” at the open mikes, said Mr. Giambri, who is usually the eldest participant at such events.
He also tends to be the most colorful, being something of an illustrated man. Each of the 20 images tattooed on his arms and chest tells a different story he has written about a life spent carousing. “It’s called self-publishing,” he said, and put down his vodka and cranberry and pulled his shirt off, to hoots from the regulars. “For years, no one would print my writing, so I started publishing my own stories on my body.”
The sexy woman reclining across his left forearm corresponds to the one about the female K.G.B. agent who he claims once tried to pick him up.
When he flexes his pectorals, a roaring 1949 Chevy jiggles to life, which leads to a retelling of the tale of Johnny Boy, his sister’s boyfriend who hot-wired a car using the silver foil from a cigarette pack. On his left forearm, there is the stripper from Pennsylvania, and next to her is another tattoo that refers to “Rosie’s Wool Knickers,” a story by Mr. Giambri about a long-ago fling with a Scottish prostitute.
“When people ask me about a certain tattoo, I can tell them to come to the next open-mike and hear me read the story,” said Mr. Giambri, whose material comes largely from dive bars. Their denizens serve as his sounding boards. He hones and revises his works-in-progress at open-mike sessions at local bars like the Parkside Lounge on Houston Street, Black and White on East 10th, and Three of Cups on First Avenue, where he runs a performance and session on the last Wednesday of every month, in addition to the other shows and sessions that he organizes.
As a longtime East Village resident, Mr. Giambri said he savors the few remaining real East Village dive bars that offer cheap drinks and no pretense, places like the Coal Yard, International Bar, Doc Holidays, 7B and his longtime mainstay, Grassroots.
After devoting most of his life to working and partying hard, Mr. Giambri said he has begun writing in earnest, and has cultivated a large group of friends and fellow writers, mostly in bars. His first book, “Confessions of a Repeat Offender,” is scheduled to go on sale next month.
“Life kept trying to make me a writer, and I kept trying to be a drunk,” said Mr. Giambri, who began hanging out in bars as a child growing up in South Philadelphia. “I grew up around nightclub owners and gamblers, and fell in love with bars as a kid,” he said. “The smell, the feel, the social life. They were mysterious, dark places that smelled like men.”
By 16 he was drinking illegally, and by 18 he had joined the Navy, spending much of the next four years on nuclear submarines off the Russian coast, during the Cold War. “I was a Sonarman, so I was listening to whale noises for three years, before it was popular.”
After the Navy, he studied acting, and he came to New York City in 1968 to become a beatnik writer. But after moving onto St. Marks Place, across from the Electric Circus nightclub, he was swept up in the psychedelic scene. He drank, smoked and “did every drug except heroin,” all while maintaining his lifelong vegetarian status, of course.
He supported himself by working as a sound and light technician for theater companies, and also as a prop man, which helps explain where he obtained the coffin that serves as a cabinet in the bedroom of his rent-stabilized apartment on St. Marks. Mr. Giambri also worked for Off Track Betting as an announcer, and as a computer technician, before retiring several years ago.
Mr. Giambri has lived on the block since 1972, and shared the place with his wife, Curly, who died last year. Composing his ribald and poignant tales keeps him busy, and adds to his body art, he said at Grassroots Tavern, still shirtless. Chloe, the bartender, reached over to tuck a dollar bill into the waist of Mr. Giambri’s jeans, as if he were a stripper. “Chippendale senior night,” Mr. Giambri yelled to his bar friends as they razzed him.
Then he turned back to his drink and said, “None of those guys are going to look this good at 74.”
Name Phillip Giambri Age 74
Who He Is : Poet, writer, open-mike impresario
Where He’s From South Philadelphia
Telling Detail: While stationed on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War, he wrote funny features for the sub’s daily newsletter, The Silent Service Breakfast News.
A version of this article appears in print on January 10, 2016, on page MB4 of the New York edition with the headline: Old Mariner, With Rhymes. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
Book Reviews and Blurbs:
ONE TOO MANY TIMES AROUND THE BLOCK: Phillip Giambri’s Confessions of a Repeat Offender
By Kofi Forson
“An eye toward life as a suitcase descending a flight of stairs hoping not to crack itself wide open and expose all its faults and failures.”
On the streets of South Philadelphia and in modest homes during the 1950s, a young man close to the age of Phillip Giambri would have been made impressionable by A-list rock and rollers, Hollywood types and bona fide athletic studs.
On the radio a spontaneously thought-positive and controversial man of charisma named Jean Shepherd on WOR Radio late at night broadcasted to his adoring fans stories, readings of poetry, and prompts for comedic stunts. Giambri grew up listening to him, where and how he obtained his deviant perspective on life.
Confessions of a Repeat Offender: Musings on a Life Gone Right in Spite of Myself are Giambri’s musings on his life gone right in spite of himself as he puts it. As a book it collapses into the mindset and psyche of an experienced man, not a “show-boater” or someone who puts a narcissist’s spin on male posturing and man-sizing.
The book is at once Dostoyevsky’s Notes from The Underground and any number of Charles Bukowski’s collections of poems and short stories. But there is less of the grandstanding and fluttering of language. Giambri has a keen eye on life as a suitcase descending a flight of stairs hoping not to crack itself open to expose all of its faults and failures. With words he doesn’t pose or flex. These are gritty detailings of life lived at the seams.
In “Cheap Shots” he says, “Most days I feel like I’m dream-walking through a life that’s a graveyard.” This is a prolonged trip through misadventures set into play by a drinking habit. The book is divided into sections which remark on his many transformations. “My Life as a Barfly” holds him to his self-professed threat as an alcoholic. The opening poem, “It all begins at Charlie’s Log Cabin Inn,” provides the epiphany with which he began spending his time in bars. As narrative it drags the reader into a prescribed mythical tale which ends up at a bar and certifies his future role as barfly.
The follow up poem, “Johnny Boy,” reveals the innocent charm in Giambri, how as an accomplice he earned his cult status, that the repeat offender in the title of the book is someone who matured based on his accompaniment of men who were otherwise more brazen and in doing so he gained his very own savvy. As in “My Wild and Wonderful Weekend with Weegee” where on a train ride with a military friend they stumble upon two women. This yet again exposes the uncanny sensibility in Giambri’s heart which is an acknowledgement of his self-vision as a man of fragility despite the male braggadocio making him less philosophical and more pragmatic.
Confessions of a Repeat Offender is an exercise in how to drink and be good at it, spend a lifetime teetering on the edge between falling flat on your face and keeping alive enough in order to tell the stories which come with drinking, maintenance of a dive bar as a home base, characters who waltz in and out of scenarios, the deadpan beauty of dangerous women, brotherhood as of men who also served in the military and now made up groups of drunks, references to nostalgia as a celebrated time which brought him escapades around the world, an attempt at normalcy with a wife and heritage from family. The word “family” is important here because circumstantially he manifested from a life at home to finding likeness in those who reflected his masculine ideal and ethos.
As collection of performances pieces featured in his stage act as The Ancient Mariner, Confessions of a Repeat Offender is a bare-knuckled, blisteringly eye-opening account of a man in search of himself. What it takes are the accounts of his experiences with a darkened romanticism and psychology and a required vice which brings him to bear the pitfalls, gore of human life plus the realness accounted for given his upbringing, persistence within a masculine ideology and karma brought about from people who play roles in defining his life’s charm.
As mentioned before, the “repeat offender” in the book’s title is a result of a life spent beating the odds. “The Meaning of Existence” as a poem in which “Two dirt encrusted old winos with broken faces” share a bottle in a bag bumming smokes from passersby and discussing the meaning of existence is a Beckettian reference where nothingness is key to examining one’s purpose in life. “East Village Dive Bar New Year’s Eve” speaks of “ghosts of New Year’s past and we’re dying real slow.” “Hard Rain on First Avenue after Midnight” features “Two poor lost souls, knowin’ they can’t do it on their own, stumblin’ down First Avenue together, tryin’ hard, to find a way back home”.
The logic behind this pronounced descent into hopelessness and despair is reminiscent in the voice of Frank in Tom Waits’ concept album Frank’s Wild Years. In the song “Straight to the Top,” Frank sings of going Vegas, making it or becoming famous. It’s a decided turn at a success which will never come.
This is the sentiment derived from reading Confessions of a Repeat Offender. Giambri has mastered the voice of the sad luck loser who comes about moments of enlightenment every now and then but something pulls him back. It’s the extreme bitterness, humility, honor and pride.
Having a drink is an affirmation, self-dependence, portrait of a man who blends in with dark corners and places where other miscreants gather. Such is the life inside a dive bar, familiar faces torn by despondency and regression. On that bar stool they hold court, govern among themselves, the silver-tongued devils, repeat offenders and those who drag themselves into a hole, at liberty to drown their sorrows, make music of their misery, one drink at a time.
Confessions of a Repeat Offender: Musings on a Life Gone Right in Spite of Myself, Phillip Giambri (Phillip Giambri, 2016) 138 pp. $15.00 https://www.amazon.com/Confessions-...
Kofi Forson is a poet and playwright living in NYC. He writes for Armseye and Whitehot Magazine.
"Phil Giambri's style is rugged streetwise New York, smoothed by a lifetime of Jack Daniel’s. The voice of a man who has lived a life worth telling about." - Mickey Wyte, author of the Amazon bestselling novel, “A Fashion To Kill.”
"They say good stories happen to those who can tell them. The magic in Giambri's poetic voice comes from his ability to render our most closely-held human experiences into laughable, relatable anecdotes. He manages to be both journalistically dissociative and evocative in his honesty." – Blair Hopkins, Photojournalist, writer
“The Ancient Mariner's poems are salty, glass half-gone tales of a life, beaten out like a soft tattoo on a Manhattan dive bar countertop.”- Johnny Cashback, author, poet.
“Philip Giambri is like a modern day Frank O'Hara, with more tattoos and a lot more women. He grabs the reader's hand, leading them into tales of drunken discoveries, spitting roots onto love and planting each tale to explore the shape of each growth. Reading Giambri is like getting every page in your passport book stamped, as you travel and get lost and laugh and whimper.” - Aimee Herman, writer, poet, performance artist.
"...like a shot of literary poteen poured down your throat - these pieces are unyielding, unforgiving, and finish strong." - Ryan McCurdy, musician, actor, writer, storyteller.
“Phillip Giambri is a writer of true merit and distinction. He creates poems and tales using the simplest ingredients: short, common words, plain constructions, down-to-earth descriptions and dialog, salty humor and wry insights into human nature. Yet above and beyond all that, Phillip Giambri has a generous soul and a thoughtful spirit. He's a guy with whom you'd be glad to share good times and bad times. He's a gentleman and a gentle man. Start reading his writing, and by the time you get to the bottom of the first page, you'll know you've made a lifelong friend.” - Michael Lydon, musician, songwriter, and author “The Rolling Stones Discover America” and “Ray Charles: Man and Music.”
“We're all sailing on the restless sea, trying to navigate our way home. The Ancient Mariner is our lighthouse. No matter how stormy the waves are, his poetry guides us and provides us with a safety net; where all the melancholy mermaids, lost sailors and Neptune's abandoned children find comfort in his words.” Saara Dutton, Writer, Producer, Provocateur.
“Phillip Giambri is a natural-born story-teller and a licensed detective of the heart. His narratives are peopled more often than not by the grizzled denizens of an urban underbelly, and these characters spring to life through the all-seeing eye of a streetwise raconteur who's set his sights on exposing the foibles of the human animal. The world he evokes is delivered to us through the lens of a master spy-- one gifted with both a keen sensitivity to the internal emotional realm and a subtle awareness of the details of the concrete world around him. These, in fact, are just the sort of refined and nuanced observational skills required to effectively convey a tale, and when combined with his willingness to lay his cards on the table in the interest of honest self-reflection the reader is taken on a moving, thought provoking and entertaining ride. You won't be bored. And ya might just learn something in the process.” - Moira T. Smith, Poet
"Phillip (The Ancient Mariner) Giambri is a magician of sentiment. His stories are transformative time capsules that put you in the shoes of a submarining barfly with an affinity for keen observation. From the dank dive bar deviance of yesteryear to the quiet reflectiveness of a true American hero, Giambri's stories have their finger on the pulse of humanity. Love, death, race, politics, and the pursuit of truthfulness all tangled, twisted and tasty in the form of a collection of short stories that are teeming with heartwarming sentimentality." - Graham Willner, author, poet, spoken word artist.
"Phillip Giambri is a romantic, cruiser and bruiser. These tales possess power and spirit of an experienced man. He tells the truth so hard it hurts; a brutal honesty which captivates the mind and soul. Ever wanted a voice inside your head while sitting at a bar...? This is Phillip Giambri at his best, crushing the psyche with hard tales about dead beats, "the damned," romantic lost souls. A reader for the pissed on and beaten down or those who want an excuse to man-up, rebel, or cop an attitude of a Hollywood wino." - Kofi Forson, Blogger @ Black Cocteau
"Phillip Giambri is a two-headed fire-breathing dragon, and his first collection of poems and stories mercilessly and mercifully scorch the earth with hope and regret, anger and love, foolishness and cut-out-the-fucking-bullshit-ness, and get real, asshole. They are cynically sentimental, leaving the reader feeling at once hollow and powerless, then fully indestructible. This slim volume goes around world; sometimes in a hot-wired car speeding down a back country road, sometimes in a submarine deep in the Baltic Sea. But whether in a crowded Lower Eastside Dive Bar in the 80s or a Scottish Cemetery at the height of the Cold War, Giambri's lean and lusty prose brings both his ordinary and unique experiences to vibrant life.” - Russell Atwood, Author “Losers Live Longer.”
“What do you call a man of many talents, flaws and skills? This story telling Barfly put serious pen to paper and began to record the stories of his life. The open mic Barfly spawned The Ancient Mariner. His love of words are his passions. He has evolved into a Lower East Side (the pre gentrification model) celeb of no small repute. His recollections and observations bring tears to eyes and smiles to faces and, remarkably, often at the same time. I have to describe this enigmatic force of nature as beloved friend. Listen and you'll find yourself using those same words.”
Ron Gliates, Writer, Emcee, Comedian, Person of Interest.
“Phillip Giambri has the heart of a new born whose wounds are open under the crimson sun. It's the fierceness of a lion’s roar to the beauty of a new Lilly blossoming in the dewy quiet forest, only to stumble upon a golden box hidden beneath the gritty dirt. Mr. Giambri's truth of life stories and poems illuminate with an incandescent warmth that reminds us to stand a little taller, laugh a little louder, and shed tears in our stale beer. For memory is archive to our lives as sand is to the hour glass, and in fleeting moments we relive them with him. His words permeate through the ether and even the trees knows his name.” Pauline Findlay- author of Mirror Images, poet
“For Phillip, an East Village writer; I’m picturing lookin’ down a long bar at Waits, Burroughs, Bukowski, Thompson, all on their feet, leanin’, hunched over, all of ‘em half a score shots or more into the early a.m., nighthawks like in a Hopper painting, only it’s not a diner, it’s a dive.
Did I mention Dorothy Parker, danglin’ her feet from her perch on a barstool, slummin’, holdin’ her own? And down at the far end, nursin’ his well whiskey, takin’ it all in, Phillip, only half-reactin’ to Dorothy’s dangerous come-ons, and the others bemused, askin’ themselves, who’s this tattooed submariner? Hey fellas, jus’ a fellow raconteur, a chronicler of those dark late-night places frequented by boozers an writers with no better place to be.” Gordon Gilbert, a West Village writer (takes one to know one).
“Phillip Giambri aka "The Ancient Mariner" is a preeminent storyteller whose tales are salty, sassy and nostalgic in one. He's a barfly who often meets damaged souls and sultry "crazy-eyed" ladies in his outings. He's not only drawn to Philly bebop music and the lure of cheap booze, but also to his late mother's work as a seamstress, a grueling job she carried out with pride and honor. Phillip's new book will take readers on many journeys, from sojourns around the world with old military pals, to East Village dive bars where he paints exquisite portraits of friends and neighbors with just the right dose of humor.” Amy Barone, Poet and Author of Kamikaze Dance
“I met Phillip Giambri at a reading five years ago. He was with a buddy looking at porn on his phone, so of course I had to say hello. We have since shared stories, shared a stage, shared a heritage, shared a cab, and shared a stuffed artichoke. He even shared his deceased wife's long, flowing dresses with me; the kind you see in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, the ones that swirl and bounce and twirl with every step, and that's sort of how it is with his words, they take hold, grab you, and whisk you away. wrap themselves around you, soothe, tease, hold, and you get sucked right in, lost in the simplicity and the gorgeousness of it all, until it hits you and you are left with the realization of how alone you are--how terribly and unmistakably alone--in the echoes of Phillip's words, there all along, to remind you.” Marie Sabatino, Storyteller
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