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New York in Eight Parts

Actors New York.jpg
Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos
Central Park, New York City, 1970

“Learn Barbering and make Money,” the sign said. Blind as I am without my glasses, the apprentice barber had cut off half of my hair with electric clippers, leaving just a tuft in front, before I realized what was happening to my head. He may have been a hair fashion visionary decades ahead of his time, but I was left in total panic. As soon as I paid my thirty-five cents, I rushed across the street to Klein’s department store and bought a beret, which I wore for the next couple of months pulled down over my ears. It was summer and hot and muggy as it usually is in New York; but I had no choice. I also wore dark glasses to make myself look “cool,” except the jazz musicians I was emulating went out only after dark, while I had to show up for work every morning in the stockroom of a publishing company where for days on end anyone who caught sight of me burst out laughing.

An old man in a bar told me:

Every night of the week I was dining at El Morocco or Stork Club in company of some movie star, having my Havana cigar lit by a maître d’ while being eyed enviously by everyone in the place. I once washed myself with a bar of soap Ava Gardner had just used.

“I don’t think you understand what I am saying, kid,” he continued angrily. “I owned skyscrapers and racehorses in the old days.”

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, a block from where I lived in the 1960s, there was a movie theater that showed a lot of foreign movies. I’d go to bed at night, toss and turn unable to sleep, and realize that I still had time to catch the late show. I’d leap out of bed, dress quickly, and run. One minute I was between the covers worrying about how to pay next month’s rent; the next I was watching some French, Japanese, or Indian movie. If it was a weeknight, the theater would be nearly empty, so with me feeling a bit sleepy, the film I was watching would feel like a dream I was having. As soon as it was over, everyone cleared out. I remember exiting through the empty lobby at one o’clock in the morning wearing pajamas under my raincoat and finding that an inch or two of snow had fallen in the meantime.

One day I got the idea that I should read through the huge Oxford Latin Dictionary that the previous tenant had left in my apartment. It was almost two feet thick and must have weighed fifteen pounds. I tried to read a little of it every day and did so for a few months. One Saturday morning I sat down at my desk, unshaven and hungover, and was about to lift its cover when I had a brilliant idea. What if I sold it? I was broke and figured the dictionary might be worth fifteen dollars or more, which was a lot of money back then. I had sold books at the Strand Bookstore, but nothing so valuable as this dictionary, so I dressed in a hurry and went out, lugging the heavy tome and stopping to rest every few blocks. There were no customers in the store. I put the huge dictionary on the counter and waited for the young man at the cash register to summon the old guy from the back who appraised and bought books. We recognized each other and he nodded briefly to me and opened the dictionary, leafed quickly through it and said: “Three bucks!” I was stunned. I muttered something about it being worth much more. “It’s the best I can do,” he replied firmly. I was furious, of course, but the thought of carrying it all the way home was depressing too, so I took the money and went and had a big breakfast, feeling guilty about it.

Although there are millions of people who live and work in New York City and the odds are staggeringly small, now and then you run into someone you know on the street. For instance, I once met a man I casually knew, three days in a row in three different neighborhoods of Manhattan. The first time we just greeted each other briefly. The next time we stopped to talk and comment on the oddness of meeting again so soon, after not having seen each other in many years. The third time we both laughed uncomfortably, asking each other who was following whom, and couldn’t wait to get away from each other.

Working in an office of a large company in midtown Manhattan was not hard work if you happened to be one of the hundreds of desk clerks. Whatever one was supposed to do that day could be accomplished in a few hours, leaving the rest of the time to chat with coworkers, most of whom were middle-aged women. Having worked in the same office for years, they all know the life story and current affairs of those whose desks were next to them. “How’s Fred?” somebody would ask her neighbor. Everybody knew that Fred was the boyfriend of Martha, who was giving him a hard time. “Oh, you are not going to believe this!” the neighbor would reply, and we would all stop what we were doing and listen. Or if nobody was talking, somebody would say: “Who do you think had the nerve to ring my door bell last night?” Boyfriends, cheating husbands, impossible mothers, alcoholic fathers, problem children, nosy relatives—we heard all about them in what were in effect several concurrently running soap operas. Sure, occasionally things turned out well, but usually by the time the story ended everyone shook their heads in disbelief. “Can you believe that?” they would say. I must admit that their stories made me eager to go to the office in the morning and it must have been the same for my coworkers. We never saw each other after work, but once we got to our desks we were chummy. Sure, my pay was lousy, but you couldn’t beat the entertainment. I liked these women very much. They were both savvy and gullible about the world and as good a bunch of human beings as I ever encountered.

The publication of Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets in 1968 was a big event for me and the other poets who were included. Five readings were organized in lofts and apartments of famous New York artists and writers to give the book maximum publicity. For instance, I did a reading with Mark Strand in Frank Stella’s studio that was introduced by James Wright, who spoke glowingly of our work, but had our names confused, it turned out. If the audience did not realize that—and why would they since we were completely unknown?—they soon found out when I read the poems Wright had praised as Strand’s and he did the ones that were supposed to be mine. Of course, since Wright was an older, much-respected poet, and someone we admired too, we did not dare to correct him then or afterward.

“The first letter I ever wrote was addressed to God,” an old man told me on a bench in Washington Square Park. General Washington was on the stamp he used. Was there too much postage, or not enough, he wondered. He had heard that there was a warehouse in Brooklyn with millions of sacks of undelivered mail going back a century. He said, “We could go there tonight with a flashlight and start looking for my letter.” He wanted to know what I thought about that. I said that I liked the idea, but that I was dead tired and had to go to bed, though now, after all these years, I’m sorry I didn’t stay with him longer on that bench, for he was a gentle soul and seemed to be all alone in the world.