This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city. This week she speaks with Karl Rosenstein, 56.
I’ve known Karl, who also goes by “Communist Karl,” for years. A squatter and former resident of tent city, Karl knows all there is to know about Karl Marx. He lives in a former squat in the Lower East Side.
I ran into him in the park and thought I’d get his story of the days back before the Tompkins Square Park riots. He said we could go and talk at his favorite cafe on the corner of 10th Street and First Avenue. It was a very nice place; they even have wine!
You have expensive taste, Karl. This coffee is excellent. How can you afford it?
I’ve even panhandled in front of this place for coffee when I’m broke. It’s good to get to know the merchants in the neighborhood. Even if you don’t have money you have credit, and I always pay. Rita, the owner here, will give me a cup of coffee for a dollar if that’s all I have.
How old are you?
I’ll be 57 in 4 days.
So you’re a Leo too! I just had my birthday.
I’m just me. I don’t believe in that crap. It’s a lot of nonsense.
What do you believe in?
The need for armed insurrection and a revolutionary party. The working class have the power to change society. I don’t have my buttons on now, but one says, “Free Mumia!” and the other one says, “Our War is Here and not the Persian Gulf.” What it means is bring the war home to the streets of America to make Class struggle.
Do you really see that happening?
Immediately? No. But whenever I wear that button I never get a negative remark, which makes me think there’s more class struggle than we think.
I believe passivism to be a counter-revolutionary ideology because it disarms the masses. I believe in the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, of armed self-defense.
Do you have a gun?
No. I have a really bad temper that I keep under wraps.
Where are you from?
Brooklyn. Flatbush. We lived in the back of the building. I fell in the lot behind the building and cut my elbow. I’ve been a rebel since I came out of the womb. My moms and pops told me not to go into the lot, they said, “You’ll fall and hurt yourself.” And I did, but I had to do it myself to find out.
The state says, “Don’t smoke marijuana.” Why do you think most kids do? It’s out of curiosity. It’s not legal but it’s not harmful.
I wanted to be a Marine up until I was 16. I wanted to go to Vietnam. I really did. I loved jazz but I was really ignorant. I wanted to kill the Gooks and then come back and kill the hippies.
‘Cause I was stupid and I watched all those John Wayne and Audie Murphy movies.
I was constantly getting into trouble at school, getting in fights. There was this kid, he was a lot bigger than me, who used to pick on me because I’m Jewish. My parents sent me to this private school uptown called The Adams School and there I met all kinds of kids, that were leftist, potheads, bohemians, political. I went from being an extremely straight kid to “Where the hell am I? What is this?” Slowly, little by little I started changing. I came to the realization: “They’re gonna send me to Vietnam? They’re gonna put a gun in my hand and I’m going to shoot people? And maybe I’ll get shot? What am I, crazy?’
When I became radical I was able to connect the dots.
My parents kicked me out for going to an anti war protest. It wasn’t until Kent State that I started growing my hair long and smoking pot and wanting to overthrow the government through revolution and not shaving and being proud of it. My parents wouldn’t let me come to the dinner table until I shaved.
I had the time of my life, there were plenty of long-haired freaks who would pick you up and turn you on. There was a lot of camaraderie.
I was a street hippie: the first squat I moved into was Life Squat on 13th street, then in the winter of 90-91 I lived in Tompkins Square Park. When I lived in the park it was the most depressing winter of my entire life. I got tired of the park and moved into P. E. S. T. (Planet Earth Scum Tribe) squat. A lotta longhairs liked to use the word ‘tribe’ to emulate the indians. I’ve been in eight squats altogether, Fetus, that burned down. Glass House on Avenue D and 10th Street, Dos Blocos, the synagogue on 8th Street, that’s a story unto itself. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and I had to sneak it into the building and hide the containers or the rabbi would freak the fuck out. I lived on the stage at C Squat. The mosquitoes
were terrible. I had to sleep under a mosquito net.
What has the squatter movement contributed to this community?
We were a revolutionary movement: we hold land the real estate maggots can’t get hold of and turn into a condo. Eleven buildings survived. The Lower East Side has always been a haven for radicals like Trotsky and Emma Goldman and bohemians like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, and immigrants. You name it.
Do you think that will be able to continue?
I don’t know. Right now there’s a short revival with anti-gentrification marches. We’re back in the headlines again. Only time will tell if it’s
a summer fling.