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Srila Prabhupada Moves to Second Avenue, NYC


The Biography of a Pure Devotee

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami


In the early summer of 1966, Srila Prabhupada was sharing a Bowery loft with a young American friend. But when the boy went crazy on drugs and drove him out, suddenly Prabhupada found himself in the street, homeless and alone.

Srila Prabhupada decided to phone Carl Yeargens and ask him to help. Hearing Prabhupada’s voice on the phone—it was an emergency!—Carl at once agreed that the Swami could move in with him and his wife, Eva. Their place was close by, on Center Street, five blocks west of Bowery near Chinatown. Carl would be right over. After Carl found Prabhupada, they didn’t stop by Prabhupada’s loft, but went straight to Carl’s place, an A.I.R. loft also, but smaller—about eighty-five feet by thirty. The main living area was large and open, with areas for the kitchen and bedroom partitioned off. There were decorative indoor plants and a profusion of throw pillows placed all around. Carl’s loft was much brighter than the dingy, factory like space in the loft on the Bowery. The floor was painted bright orange—Carl used to say it looked like the deck of a ship. The walls and ceiling were white, and light from seven skylights filled the room. Carl and Eva settled the Swami in one corner.

Prabhupada had left his belongings at David’s loft and didn’t want to go back, so Carl went over to pick up a few of them. Prabhupada asked him to leave most of his things, including his books, suitcases, and reel-to-reel tape recorder, where they were.

Although by this time David had come down from the intense effects of the LSD, he remained rather crazy. When Carl arrived at the loft, the door was locked and David was inside—afraid to let anyone come in, although finally he relented. He had shut and locked all the windows, making the loft oppressively hot and stuffy. Bill Epstein, who also came by that day, analyzed David as having had “a drug-induced nervous breakdown, a narcopsychosis.” And although David was sorry he had exploded at the Swami, neither Bill nor Carl thought Prabhupada should live with David again. Apparently Prabhupada’s chances of making the loft into a Radha-Krsna temple were finished. Carl and Bill gathered up a few of Prabhupada’s belongings, and David stayed behind in the loft. He wanted to be alone.

Carl Yeargens knew Srila Prabhupada’s living habits well and wanted to accommodate him with a suitable place to live and work. In a small alcove at one end of his loft, Carl had a small study, which he allocated for the Swami. Carl also set up a cushioned dais and arranged the living room around it so that guests could sit on the floor in a semicircle. Carl’s wife, who didn’t really like the idea of a swami moving in, agreed to cover a few cushions with Indian madras material for him anyway.

Things went smoothly for a while. Prabhupada continued his morning and evening classes, and many of the Bowery hip crowd came by. Three of his regular callers lived right in the same building, and a few others, including Carl’s brother, were just around the block. Michael Grant, James Greene—even David Allen came once.

I was at Carl’s loft, and the Swami comes strolling in one day (relates Don Natheson, a painter). So I already knew he was on the scene, from David’s. Mostly musicians were coming. They were enjoying that private morning session with him. And that’s really strange in itself, because these people were up almost all night and he used to do it at six in the morning, for one hour. He would lead them in chanting with his hand cymbals—dot-dot-dah, dot-dot-dah. It was strange, because that crowd was heavy into drugs and they were well read. But for a short period they used to go every morning, nine or ten of them, and they felt very good about it. They felt very good that they did that in the morning. The Swami was talking, and I remember sitting with him. He was sitting around eating with us.

According to Carl, the creative group who came to see the Swami in his studio were all quick to enter into the mood of the kirtana, the chanting, but they were “using it in their own ways, to supplement their own private visions and ecstasies,” with no real intention of adopting the disciplines or the undivided worship of Lord Krsna. Prabhupada was their first real contact with a spiritual person, and yet even without trying to understand, they became absorbed in his kirtanas and in what he had to say. Carl would invite them: “Hey, come on. This is genuine. This is real. You’ll like it. It’s music. It’s dance. It’s celebration,” Carl saw that “people just felt good being in the Swami’s presence and meditating on the chanting and eating the Swami’s cooking. It was unlike anything they had experienced before, except maybe for their moments of creative insight.”

Yet for Carl and Eva, Srila Prabhupada’s simple presence created difficulty. Never before during his whole stay in America had Prabhupada been a more inconvenient or unwanted guest. Carl’s studio was arranged for him and his wife to live in alone, using the bedroom, kitchen, and living room any way they liked. If they wanted to smoke marijuana or eat meat or whatever, that was their prerogative. This was Mr. Carl’s home; he lived here with his wife Eva and their dogs and cats. But now they had to share it with the Swami.

Almost at once, the situation became intolerable for Eva. She resented Prabhupada’s presence in her home. She was a feminist, a liberated white woman with a black husband and a good job. She didn’t like the Swami’s views on women. She hadn’t read his books or attended his classes, but she had heard that he was opposed to sexual intercourse except for conceiving children, and that in his view women were supposed to be shy and chaste and help their husbands in spiritual life. She knew about the Swami’s four rules—no meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, or gambling—and she definitely did not want Carl’s Swami trying to change their ways to suit him. And he had better not expect her to wait on him as his servant. She sensed the Swami objecting to almost everything she did. If she were to seek his advice, he would probably ask her to stop taking drugs, get rid of the cats and dogs, stop drinking, and stop contraceptive sex. If the Swami had his way, they would probably eat only at certain times and only certain foods. Eva was a heavy smoker, so the Swami probably wouldn’t like being around her. She was ready for a confrontation.

But Srila Prabhupada was not one to make intolerant demands while living in another’s home. He made no demands or criticisms, but kept to his allotted corner of the loft. Hadn’t he seen his hosts in Butler eating meat and only remarked, “Think nothing of it”? Nevertheless, his imposing spiritual presence made Eva sorry Carl had ever met him. To Eva, the Swami was an inimical force—and she, being candid and independent, let him know. As soon as he asked whether she could bring him something, she replied, “Get it yourself.”

Carol Bekar saw the situation as being extremely uncomfortable and tense—”Eva was quite resentful.” Eva complained to Carol: here she was paying rent for the loft, working hard, and this man was trying to change their way of life.

She couldn’t handle his teaching (Carol Bekar relates), and she couldn’t handle his influence over Carl. She didn’t feel so constrained, but she felt that Swamiji was making Carl feel constrained. And I think she was right.

This was Eva’s main objection—the Swami was influencing Carl. Her relationship with Carl had only recently begun, and Carl was aware that she needed much of his time. He agreed with his wife, yet he couldn’t refuse the Swami. He was interested in Indian music, poetry, and religions, and here was a living authority, vastly knowledgeable in all facets of Indian culture, right in his home. Prabhupada would cook his meals in their kitchen, and right away Carl would be there, eager to learn the art of Indian cuisine. Carl also wanted the Swami to show him how to play the drum. They would have long talks together.

Carl was trying to be something he really wasn’t (Carol Bekar relates), but he would never have suggested that the Swami had to leave. Swami, I am sure, was astute enough to pick up on this tension. As soon as he could, he tried to move to another place.

Gradually, Carl reached an impasse in his relationship with the Swami. He couldn’t share his life with both his wife and the Swami, and ultimately he was more inclined towards his wife.

I couldn’t see my loft becoming a temple (Carl relates). We saw our loft as ours. I have to put it on myself as much as anyone. I could understand and absorb India through an impersonal agency like a book or a record, but here was the living representative of Godhead, and to me it was as difficult as anything I’ve ever had to do before or since.

Prabhupada was not insensitive to the distress his presence occasioned. He didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, and of course, he could have avoided all inconvenience, both for himself and for people like Eva, if he had never come to America. But he wasn’t concerned with convenience or inconvenience, with pleasing Eva or displeasing her. He wanted to teach Krsna consciousness.

Prabhupada had a mission, and Carl’s loft didn’t seem to be the right base for it. Prabhupada’s friends all agreed: he should move more into the center of things. The Bowery and Chinatown were too far out of the way. They would find him a new place.

Forced by conditions that he accepted as Krsna’s mercy, Prabhupada sat patiently, trying not to disturb anyone, yet speaking about Krsna consciousness from day to night. Carl assured him that with half a dozen people checking out the Lower East Side, it wouldn’t take long to find a new place, and they would all chip in together and help him with the rent.

* * *

A week passed, and no one had found a suitable place for the Swami. One day Prabhupada suggested that he and Carl take a walk up to Michael Grant’s place and ask him to help….

I was awakened one morning very early (Michael Grant relates), and Carl was on the phone saying, “Swamiji and I were just taking a walk, and we thought we’d come up and see you. “I said, ‘But it’s too early in the morning.” And he said, “Well, Swamiji wants to see you.” They were very near by, just down the street, so I had to quickly get dressed, and by the time I got to the door they were there.

I was totally unprepared, but invited them up. The television set had been on from the previous night, and there were some cartoons on. The Swami sat between Carl and me on the couch. We began to talk, but Swamiji glanced over at the cartoons on the television set and said, “This is nonsense.” Suddenly I realized that the television was on and that it was nonsense, and I got up very quickly saying, “Why yes, it is nonsense,” and turned it off.

As Srila Prabhupada talked, he tried to impress on Mike how difficult it was for him to live with Carl and Eva, and Mike listened. But was the Swami so sure he couldn’t go back to the Bowery loft and live with David Allen? Except for that one incident, it had been a nice set-up, hadn’t it? Prabhupada explained that David had become a madman from too much LSD. He was dangerous. Mike gave Prabhupada a half-incredulous look—David Allen, dangerous? But as Prabhupada spoke, Mike began to feel transparent, with the Swami’s knowing glance probing into him. Yes, David was dangerous. Mike didn’t ask for any more details.

Mike could see that Swamiji was appealing to him for help, and as they all sat together on the couch, Mike and Carl quietly nodded in agreement. Prabhupada was looking at Mike, and Mike was trying to think.

“So how can we help, Swamiji?” Carl interjected.

Mike felt uneasy. He explained that he was a pianist and he had to practice every day. He had two pianos, two sets of drums, a vibraphone, and other instruments right there in his apartment. Musicians were always coming over to practice, and they all played their instruments for hours. Also, he was living with a girl, and there was a cat in the apartment. But Mike promised that he would help find the Swami a new place. Prabhupada thanked him and, along with Carl, stood to leave.

Mike felt obligated. He was good at getting things done, and he wanted to do this for the Swami. So the next day he went to the Village Voice, got the first newspaper off the press, looked through the classified ads until he found a suitable prospect, and phoned the landlord. It was a storefront on Second Avenue, and an agent, a Mr. Gardiner, agreed to meet Mike there. Carl and Srila Prabhupada also agreed to come.

Mr. Gardiner and Mike were the first to arrive. Mike noted the unusual hand-painted sign—”MATCHLESS GIFTS” above the front window. It was a holdover, Mr. Gardiner explained, from when the place had been a nostalgic gift shop. Mike proceeded to describe the Swami as a spiritual leader from India, an important author, and a Sanskrit scholar. The rental agent seemed receptive. As soon as Prabhupada and Carl arrived and everyone had been congenially introduced, Mr. Gardiner showed them the small storefront. Prabhupada, Carl, and Mike carefully considered its possibilities. It was empty, plain, and dark—the electricity had not been turned on—and it needed repainting. It would be good for meetings, but not for the Swami’s residence. But at $170 a month it seemed promising. Then Mr. Gardiner revealed a small, second-floor apartment just across the rear courtyard, directly behind the storefront. Another $100 a month and the Swami could live there, although first Mr. Gardiner would have to repaint it. The total rent would come to $270, and Carl, Mike, and the others would pitch in.

Prabhupada had the idea of making Mr. Gardiner the first official trustee of his fledgling Krsna consciousness society. During their conversation he presented Mr. Gardiner with a three-volume set of his Srimad-Bhagavatam, and inside the front cover he wrote a personal dedication and then signed it, “A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.” Mr. Gardiner felt flattered and honored to receive these books from their author himself. He agreed to become a trustee of the new society for Krsna consciousness and so pay the society $20 a month (which he would simply deduct from the rent).

Mr. Gardiner took a week to paint the apartment. Meanwhile, Mike arranged for the electricity and water to be turned on and had a phone installed, and he and Carl raised the first month’s rent among their friends. When everything was ready, Mike gave Prabhupada a call at Carl’s.

Now it was time to move the Swami into his new place. A few friends who were on hand accompanied Prabhupada over to the Bowery loft. Maybe they weren’t prepared to become his surrendered disciples, but contributing toward the first month’s rent and volunteering a few hours of work to help set up his place were exactly the kinds of things they could do very willingly. At the loft, all of them gathered up portions of the Swami’s belongings, and then they started out on foot up the Bowery. It was like a safari, a caravan of half a dozen men loaded with Prabhupada’s things. Mike carried the heavy Roberts reel-to-reel, and even the Swami carried two suitcases. They did everything so quickly that it wasn’t until they were walking up the Bowery and Mike’s arm began to ache that he realized: “Why didn’t we bring a car?”

It was the end of June, and a hazy summer sun poured its heat down into the Bowery jungle. Starting and stopping, the strange safari, stretching for over a block, slowly trekked along. Prabhupada struggled with his suitcases up the Bowery, past the seemingly unending row of restaurant supply shops and lamp stores between Grand, Broome, and Spring streets. Sometimes he paused and rested, setting his suitcases down. He was finally moving from the Bowery. His electrician friend on Seventy-second Street would have been relieved, although perhaps he would have disapproved of the Second Avenue address also. At least the Swami was finished residing on Skid Row. He walked on, past the homeless men outside the Salvation Army shelter, past the open-door taverns, stopping at streetlights, standing alongside total strangers, keeping an eye on the progress of his procession of friends who struggled along behind him.

The Bowery artists and musicians saw him as “highly evolved.” They felt that the spirit was moving him, and they were eager to help him set up his own place so that he could do his valuable spiritual thing and spread it to others. He was depending on them for help, yet they knew he was “on a higher level”; he was his own protector, or, as he said, he was protected by God.

Prabhupada and his young friends reached the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, turned right, and proceeded west. Gazing steadily ahead as he walked. Prabhupada saw the southern end of Second Avenue, one block away. At Second Avenue he would turn left, walk just one block north across First Street, and arrive at his new home. Precisely as he passed the IND Subway entrance. the storefront came into view—”MATCHLESS GIFTS.” He gripped his suitcases and moved ahead. At Second Avenue and Houston he hurried through a break in the rapid traffic. He could see green trees holding their heads above the high courtyard wall, reaching up like overgrown weeds in the space between the front and rear buildings of his new address. The streetside building housed his meeting hall, the rear building the apartment where he would live and translate. Adjoining the storefront building on its north side was a massive nine-story warehouse. The storefront structure was only five stories and seemed appended to the larger building like its diminutive child. On its southern side, Prabhupada’s new temple showed a surface of plain cement and was free of any adjoining structure; there was only the spacious lot of the busy Mobil service station that bordered on First Street. As Srila Prabhupada approached the storefront, he could see two small, lanterns decorating the narrow doorway.

There was no certainty of what awaited him here. But already there had been good signs that these American young people, mad though they sometimes were, could actually take part in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. Perhaps this new address would be the place where he could actually get a footing with his International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

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