Michael Shenker, in foreground, at a rally to save the community gardens. Behind him are Jerry Wade (“Jerry The Peddler”), with beard, and Chris Flash.
Squatter, artist, orator, electrician and a friend
By Frank Morales
It was while walkin’ down a deserted mean street back in 1985 that I first met Michael Shenker. He was sitting, legs dangling in a ground-floor, windowless opening in an otherwise vacant building on a vacant street in a vacant part of town, the Lower East Side east of A. He’d been holed up there with his girlfriend Natasha in the abandoned 319 E. Eighth St., right down the block from Tompkins Square Park. He waved, I stopped, we started chatting. Soon we discovered that we had something in common: We were both looking to squat, both looking to bust in and set up shop in one of the many vacant buildings which littered the neighborhood at that time. The idea was to open ’em up, fix ’em up, invite people who needed a space in and open up more.
Sounded pretty exciting. Real adventure in urban archeological exploration, occupation and freewheeling, hands-on creativity in illegal clandestinity. I learned that he was good at all those things. Last week, with his friends all around, hoping and praying otherwise, Michael passed on to that great big squat in the sky. A real drag. Even he couldn’t do without a functioning liver. At the end he didn’t want any artificial “life support.” “Quality not quantity,” he said to us. Whispering in my ear he reinforced the point: “Remember, you know what you gotta do when it comes time to do it.” I nodded yes, and then he added with an ever so slight smile, “and remember, I’m a Unitarian.”
At his memorial coming up on Saturday the 16th at 7 p.m. at the Catholic
Worker’s Maryhouse (55 E. Third St.) we’re gonna hear all sorts of stories about his heroics in the cause of squatting, gardens and peace, and his oratorical gift in rousing up of the masses to revolt, all of which are true. We’ll also hear testimony to his amazing skills as an electrician and pianist, a carpenter and a cook, a writer of plays and operas and a serious West Village chess aficionado. All true as well.
But most of all, for me, at the moment of his passing and trying to squeeze some meaning out of it, all I can say is that Michael made his life count for something. Never one to wear his party affiliation on his sleeve, or trumpet a systematic politic, his commitment to defending and giving voice to the voiceless was manifest in his great passion, good humor and mischievous and infectious courage in the face of the death in life that he fought until the end.
A great tactician in the art of street fighting, he was less interested in the often self-evident why do something, more focused on the how we gonna get it done? A sharp and distinctive dresser who loved red velvet vests, top hats, flashy earrings and leather, he had a fine sense of the finer things in life, art, music, theater, good food, good people and making a people’s revolution while having a good time.
Like a lot of people, I’m gonna miss him. A big empty in the block…hey Mike, you out there? But listen, a true existential, renaissance guy raised up into adulthood on the streets of this place, a glorious mixture of serenity and rage, refinement and grit, melody and chaos, Michael was the kind of revolutionary that doesn’t need a script or a reason or a book or a God or an ideology to act. He just moved according to the dictates of his heart, the logic of his immense smarts and the limitless courage of a wise fool who got things done. Yeah, he made his life count for something. We should be so lucky.