Dark, cold, and misty in January of this year, 1981. Bloomingdale’s did better than expected in the Christmas sales and heaven knows it was filled with a mystical spirit for the whole month of December and Fifth Avenue shone with a great light and all was well with the buying and selling of clothes. The army of clothes paraded in the streets and there was impressive national power in the boots, especially that pair of tan leather trimmed in lizard and costing $600. What luck to find them caressing a shinbone since they were certain to cost more next year.
Splendid sportif raccoon coats pacing the avenues, sniffing, fearless night beauties, with small, happy faces peering out of the ruff at the neck, faces with dabs of purplish red on the cheekbones. On the streets you understand that the greatness of winter is to wear woolen shawls, big as a shepherd’s cloak, little knit caps, fur-lined gloves, plaid skirts with two dozen pleats, suede pants, and leather vest—and in the evening, velvet.
But the brilliance of this warm display is suddenly snubbed by the impatient appearance of resort clothes, light little things slipped into the windows in the stealth of night, ready for the 2nd of January as if a hot wind had blown them up from the storage basement. Bathing suits and shorts, cotton dresses with spaghetti straps; sunburns and surfboards, tennis rackets and green turf for golf, black waiters and seafood. On Madison Avenue, roses and bougainvillea and the lowly hibiscus; blue swimming pools, strawberries and cream. Overnight, what sun-splattered health in the January slush.
So much for the landscape and the defiant calendar of merchandise. A step on the way to the New York Public Library, the castle of stone and Vermont marble backed by its stone-bench park of infamous assignations. No reason to doubt the Library, “Modern Renaissance more or less in the style of Louis XVI,” has survived the night and its treasures, its flakey books, parcels of such peculiarity, will move back and forth from stack to hand like the tide going in and out.
Forty-second Street does not appear this morning to have enjoyed a particularly good Christmas season. Instead it has the thick and thuggish air of having endured the predicted slump of the times. And it is not on its way to the Caribbean. No need for that since there is something hot and tropical about shoddy, dusty, fatigued little business places in which the winter air seems rich with summer flies.
They say Forty-second Street will be reclaimed and that means many familiar, unpromising things will be deflected. Not unlike the way the state highway department decides upon a new road, makes its plans, and the plans cut through the middle of an old widow’s house, tottering there in her own yard, with the rotting barn, its roof beautifully smashed in like a felt hat, and the cracked oval windows of the hayloft. All of it collapse, desuetude that you might call irreplaceable. Goodbye. Off the widow goes to the trailer park where her “assessment” buys a cozy, oblong piece of tin fitted together in the early 1950s. At least there she is in another rural environment and soon at night she can hear the trucks, magnificent transcontinental donkeys carrying hard tomatoes across the country on their backs.
The bar of the Hotel Astor, heart of Times Square not so long ago. Scene of many misadventures owing to double doses of the Manhattan cocktail, wrongly named because of its sweetness. Neat, squeamish girls floating on New Year’s Eve into the streets, for history, for city experience—and the men pushing into them, nearly penetrating as it were.
Everywhere there is much respect for the honorable suicide of old buildings tired of the haul up and down, exhausted by patched-up arteries and expensive surgery. The moonlight on ten stories of a sandstone building with Gothic pediments: for that you go down to the archives like men in rubber suits searching for jewel cases left in the Andrea Doria. Cheap sunlight on an empty right-hand corner. There is some of that in empty, dead Main Streets, streets with the ashamed gaze of nude manikins in a shop window at night. Here, in Manhattan, an excavation deep in the middle of Fiftieth Street is as awesome as a crypt in a cathedral and a certain quiet wonder about the nature of things can be observed on the faces of strollers staring down into the hole.
If they reclaim Times Square the squalid pornography houses, the public scene of the private, will then move on, find another ground elsewhere for the onanistic seed. But what about the orange drinks in large, round, glass vessels which swirl the liquid around as if there were many goldfish inside needing circulation? And the record shops, providing through the open doors sounds that grab the arm like a companion suddenly come upon? And the Brazilian shoes with their dagger heels tilted on little pieces of plastic in the display window? They fit someone, just right. And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tunafish, and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.
The New York Public Library—not much to be done with that. You would not want to say that it has the smell of the tomb of its steady, underpaid clerks; but it does have the smell of a tomb and that is not unpleasant for a day of study. Damp winter shrouds on the backs of chairs. Bright, determined scholars, using the minutes, the hours, and the bibliographies, the footnotes falling into line obediently, like little soldiers in the ranks of documentation.
The others, the others. There at the front table in the left gallery is one of them, a fair-skinned old lady, a true American, daily researching her genealogy—an indefatigable digger, burrowing in the holes of Virginia and Massachusetts. Yes, you see me here in the scum of Manhattan, but my blue eyes and this yellowing white hair go back to Josiah Somebody, a man of great importance in the American Revolution, and I will soon know precisely where the old homestead stood. It was very near to that of his dear friend, the great General John Stark of New Hampshire.
Displaced widow of New York City, what are you doing here, with your pocketbook full of the American Revolution, your house keys, a few dollars, your Senior Citizen bus pass, and your Unitarian memories? Will you not budge, you blue-eyed remainder? Will you never go back to that place where you met your husband in high school, where you went to Normal School to learn to teach reading and arithmetic? There is room back there among the town hall records, the village library, the Grange meetings, the church fair, the waving flags, and the graves. No, she is not going anywhere, is never to be severed; she will not part from thee, Manhattan. She is part of some irrevocable trust, signed and notarized years ago. And now a pretty tortoise-shell comb falls from the bun of her white hair. It falls without sound to the floor, but in its passage it is observed by a young woman who picks it up, puts it in the pocket of her red cable-knit cardigan, and ever so swiftly moves to a table at the back of the room. Another keepsake gone.
Ah, well, the library is a hallowed spot. (Ten men were killed in the building of it, along with twenty or thirty seriously injured.) My university was the New York Public Library, some left-wing intellectuals used to say, singing it out in a “Deutschland über Alles” rhythm, the same Hail! rhythm used by the universities themselves.
In the library there can be found Back Issues, old copies of our literary magazines. Quarterlies they were for the most part, inspirations of the vernal equinox and winter solstice. Long and short memorials to the thoughts of many therein. More hours of these lives were spent on book reviews than on lovemaking or even on making a living. Married, divorced, two children, won Pulitzer Prize, suffered torments which at last appeared in print—an emanation, a sign with a name attached to it, as Halley predicting a natural phenomenon claimed as his own the swooning, remarkable flash in the sky. Back Issues, a candy store, small business. Poems and stories, politics, reversals and discoveries, individually packed by hand and some, as they say, moving faster than others.
For this day at the library I took with me the first notebook at hand: a nice object, cherry-colored, flecked with white and bound in a black strip: A-Plus Notebook made by Eaton Paper Division of Textron. There inside were reminders of sloth or perhaps despair of idea—scattered notes for an unwritten article on George Gissing. Part of life, these notes, no different from a large bill in the morning, a Chinese dinner in the evening—real life, set aside like pennies in a dish.
“This ink-stained world.”
“The reading-public—oh, the reading public!” p. 200.
And on p. 79 of New Grub Street, the terrible cry of: “Don’t be foolish, dear. What is to prevent your writing?” What is to prevent? What is to prevent?
Sitting on the bench, awaiting the Back Issues, alongside a beautiful man. Write it down just as male authors write of “the haunting face across the room of a beautiful woman.”
He is not an American, certainly not. His genealogy is filled with martyrs, black-eyed, black-haired oppressed peoples, mowed down, starved. Perhaps he comes from some hated minority booted about by an overbearing conqueror; an Armenian perhaps.
The waits at the book desk are an extended intermission, like a queue at a betting place. No matter, quite a few are pleased to pass the time here in warmth, safety, quiet, and best of all in the chapel rectitude of merely “being at the library.” The pale green paper lampshades, replacing the old green glass, the worn gloss of the wooden tables, the expert sense of which number directs to the left and which to the right, the world-renowned card catalogue, the free slips of paper, the chutes into which they drop. This place is an occupation with its bits of skill and familiarity with the position of the lavatories.
The beautiful man from the race of martyrs was dressed well enough in the style of modest indoor occupations. He was wearing a white shirt—out of step with the times there—a dark blue or black suit and a black tie. That was rather clerkly and hopeless for midday at Forty-second and Fifth—but see the lustrous black eyes, the tall, thin body, and the hard-edged perfection of nose, cheekbone, and chin. No surprise to observe the foreign, oppressed people’s patience in his sitting without sighs, without a crumpled newspaper. At last his number appeared and he received a large volume and the out-of-date quarterlies followed soon.