Joe Kloc

The Color and the Pageantry of Thoroughbred Turtle Racing

Bohos, Bobos, and the Slow Death of New York’s West Village

DISCUSSED: Corner-Store Coffee, Gravediggers, 270 Composition Notebooks, A Bare Light Bulb, Ivan the Terrapin, Doping, The Self-Proclaimed Historian of the Village, A “Contemporary Scottish Pub,” The Charlie Sheen of Racing Turtles

In the world of competitive turtle racing, Mitch Cohen is known as “the Turtle Man.” It is a hard-earned distinction for which he has paid a high price: for decades, Cohen has raised turtles in the lettuce-filled bathtub of his one-room New York City apartment. During fair season, he loads their three hundred pounds of gear into a hard-shell carrier atop his car and totes them to festivals and garden shows as far away as Texas, putting on races for his devoted followers. He has never made much money at this venture. Nor has he ever been married or had children. But the routine has kept him young. He is tall and strong. With sun-worn skin and a full head of white hair, he looks happy—more so than most, even. In fact it is only his slow, deliberate gait that betrays his eighty years.

Cohen is one of the last of the Village residents from the 1960s who are still around. Their tribe haunts the neighborhood’s few remaining unpolished spaces: basement apartments, down-and-out bars, and disappearing parks, remembering the Laundromats, cafés, and book emporiums where villagers once whiled away Sunday afternoons, reading, arguing, and enjoying cups of corner-store coffee. I first became aware of their presence a year before I met Cohen. While I was riding the subway in the spring of 2012, an older man noticed I was reading a copy of Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell’s stories chronicle the lives of New York City bums, flophouse workers, gravediggers, bar owners, bar goers, Calypso singers, fortune-tellers, bohemians, and park preachers who defined street life in Manhattan between the late ’30s and the mid-’70s. The man on the subway, whom I’ll call Z because he asked me not to use his name, told me that he loved returning to the characters of Mitchell’s New York, which, as I would come to discover in the next few months, was also his New York: Z was born in Greenwich Village in the 1940s, back when it was still a working-class Irish and Italian neighborhood. He remembers coming home to find his father mulling over the merits of Marxism in his kitchen with James Yates, the Mississippi-born African American author who had fought in the Spanish Civil War (“The good war,” Z said. “Not the bullshit war”). He claimed, too, that he was close with Henry Miller’s best friend, and that the two would sit together and read letters Miller sent from Big Sur. (“They thought he was a sexist. He wasn’t. He was a romantic.”) Back then, Z said, William Gottlieb, the real estate mogul who eventually bought up much of the Village, would drive around in his beat-up car as the locals would joke to one another: “You can sell to Bill, but you can’t buy from him.”

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Joe Kloc is a reporter for Newsweek living in New York.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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