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.
At our different tables it was possible to see him slowly turning pages. The time passed, he left his place for a moment and I, slipping past the large book, made out the title: Nervous Diseases. Yes, yes, he is “nervous,” unhappy. There is something wrong with his mind and no one can tell him just what it is. He is in the Public Library researching his misery, his confusion, his sorrow.
Diseases and litigious frenzies, tumors and fits, money owed and great corporations befouling an obscure, solitary person’s dreams: Forty-second and Fifth is the roost of these afflictions and who knows but what a great speckled egg of amelioration or revenge lies buried in the stacks or down in the basement of the seldom-called-for. The trouble is that abstract knowledge does not quite fit the personal case with its galling concreteness and its nasty distance from the universal. Con Edison will not refund, the old employer will never rehire, the ringing in the ear will not cease tolling out its dizzying suspicions.
The Summer Issue. Who does not remember that it arrived when the besotted fall leaves were thick in the gutters, providing plenty of time for the unseasonal pages to lie upon the desk until January, when the Autumn Issue appeared in the mails?
1964: “Our judgment of Hawthorne may have to be that he is not for us today, or perhaps not even tomorrow. He is, in Nietzsche’s phrase, one of the spirits of yesterday—and the day after tomorrow.”
The dash (—) is beautiful. And with what grace it prepares for “and the day after tomorrow.”
Now, where does the despised and rejected Armenian live and on what? That’s the question of Manhattan, isn’t it, for the darkly handsome and for the fair retiree of old American stock?
Reviews of first novels and late novels, poems, stories from some who died young and some who ceased to write, suffering thereby lifelong as from a liver complaint. The touch of the Muse, brushing the cheek like a breeze one day in youth—beware.
Now, here is a first novel, The Avalanches of Summer, by a young American, new as a fresh-born kitten, noticed by a critic now wearing as many medals as a Hohenzollern in honor of his notable, fearless displeasures. But wait. The critic finds this young novel brilliant, astonishing, an achievement of the highest sort, and more than that, more than anything to be hoped for, significant, actually about something.
The climbers, who fall under the avalanche, are two young men and their girlfriends, creatures of postwar Germany, the land of restored opera houses and speeding demons on the Autobahn, a country glowing once more in the brightness of “Munich blue.” Their parents, survivors of a thousand cruel ambiguities, do not know that the ice will reach them at last, burying their children who are guilty only of a sporting holiday, the holiday of post-war German prosperity, with its hidden glaciers of guilty ice which no summer sun can melt.
But where is the author and where is his novel? Sank without a trace, in the murderous phrase. What right, you might ask, has the monstrous sea of pages to engulf the young man as if he were a third-class passenger on the arrogant Lusitania, watching through the porthole, as he sank, the half-empty lifeboats? Of course it is always possible the critic’s pleasure unhinged him, but who can bear to think of the diseases of happiness?
Many brilliant names on the magazine covers arousing a palsy of anticipation. The romance of names, as if one were to say, I met him at a party and that is how it started. Fall in love in the middle of a Winter Issue. Or suffer a disillusionment, make several telephone calls, as if to a doctor or a druggist, to ask: What do you make of that? My head aches from the wrong turning at the end.
It’s only words, the druggist says.
Spring Issue, 1958: “There remains the case of the forcibly Sovietized countries of Eastern Europe, whose plight we cannot recognize as definite.” That was good news for us of the anti-Stalinist left.
At mid-afternoon the sun, slipping through the mist, made a bright stripe across the face of the handsome man. His skin had the sallow tintings of so many interesting peoples. But there was nothing of shah or sheik or pasha in his black-suited diffidence. Perhaps just a shade of flirtatiousness that comes from life as a beauty and being noticed—a sort of lifting of the head.
In another Back Issue a translation from the French:
But novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac.
Appearances has several meanings. The face of the handsome foreigner is not to the point here.
Nothing much to report about him. Activities at the library table have their dramatic limits. Nervous Diseases has been abandoned, pushed to the side. Now he seems to be writing a letter with its thoughtful pauses for reflection followed by a steady, rhythmical sweep across the sheet of paper.
The pages of the purple or cherry-colored notebook ripple back to jottings about George Gissing. “He wanted home life and found a slattern.” That was Edith, the second Mrs. Gissing, the second fatality. Such a “selfish and coarse nature” he chose, even after his youthful marriage to the alcoholic prostitute, Nell, the best of the two. Nell died at thirty-one, and at last, at last, in a fearful scene, freezing in fever in her light dirty dress on a filthy, miserable bed. “The trade of the damned” appears as a quotation, but it is not about poor Nell; it is about Gissing at his writing desk or one of his writing characters.
In the old magazines there are early opinions, what you might call thin ones, and now twenty or so years later the opinions of some have expanded like the size of the waistband.
The advertisements on the back covers linger there like gossip. What was born that year that did not exist the year before? “I am inclined to believe that John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs will in the long run be seen as more important than his brilliant Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.”—Allen Tate. Well, that was true. Across the board.
No one in the Public Library today brings to mind the early John B. peering over his large, glinting eyeglasses from the stage of the YMHA, the temple of poetry readings. There he was then, spare, intense, and learned; there he was in a smart tweed jacket, there before the faithful girls of New York. High style infatuation. In the vestibule where white wine completed the evening, the poet could be seen skating as if on one toe over the oil slick of questions, diverting away from his own lines to The Winter’s Tale and gorgeous Perdita, left to the wind and the waves, and the parenthetical paranoias of Leontes. Another evening. That’s what we’re here for, the filing cabinet of first and last performances.
Of course you never know who is about in the library. The pretty, plump girl smiling like intelligence itself as she reads…. Time to leave. Gather up the Gissing class-bloodied world, a clot of unsuccess. Leave the magazine essays and their seashell precocity.
He too rose and there he is at the stairs and then again at the cloakroom. Outside a cold, heavy rain annoys hundreds who begin to scream for taxis even though there are none to be seen with the light on. But scream away just in case there has been an electrical shortage in the engine and half the cabs are indeed free. People from the street crowd under the narrow ledge of the Forty-second Street entrance. A fury of restless vexation addressed to the weather. High heels drown in the splash at the curb and the mean West Side wind from the Hudson blows about as carelessly as crime. Nothing special—just a skirmish with time, time as scarce as old shoe buckles for the busy and the idle.
Think of the courage of the new Hotel Hyatt down the street at Grand Central. Millions and millions of dollars of faith, each dollar a pilgrim. The intrepid gleam of its brass and glass, its Alpine waterfall splashing over three long, flat concrete steps, and the pastoral, bay-windowed restaurant, cozy as a cottage garden, hanging over Forty-second Street. Down below our third world mysteries and wonders of bus exhausts, blowing garbage, and blind newsdealers to salute the Japanese. Fortunately they are accustomed to the Asiatic.
And here is my man, unrolling a large black umbrella of genuine cloth. With his black cap of curls, his careful courtesy, he now has the look of a seminarian. As companions from the bookshelf and reading room, he holds the umbrella over my head and we begin to converse. People sometimes meet each other in the library, although that is not the romance of the noble building. It is not a suitable landscape for the enrichment of social experience, no. The single persons it claims are far too singular and the encounters struck up are likely to be as unfortunately surprising as the meeting of a homosexual and a detective in the subway toilets.
After we agree that it is raining, he asks: Where do you live, you American?
A reassuring accent, a nice, lilting, slightly askew knowledge of the language, the attractive flow of someone who has learned English abroad.
I live here in Manhattan.
Manhattan. More than a million and a half.
We are each one of more than a million.
What is the occupation of your life? he continues. A little rote learning in that perhaps. Once long ago I looked over the shoulder of a young man on a train in Europe in order to discover his Nervous Diseases, as it were. He was studying an English grammar, working on a sentence which read: “Can you tell me, sir, where I can purchase a pair of plus-fours?” So, a bit of plus-fours in the black beauty’s English.
My occupation? I find myself occupied as a teacher.
A pause, a brief, dry cough and then: Now, I am sad. In my other life I was a teacher. That was also my occupation in life and so we are engaged in a coincidence, you and I.
What is your occupation in life now?
And suddenly there in the freezing rain, the rain of a thousand annoyances not to be endured without multitudinous protests and curses of betrayal, the true black-suited man appeared. Whence cometh thou, new immigrant standing on the steps of the New York Public Library?
I am Greek. In my black suit and black tie I work in a Greek restaurant tonight and every night except Sunday.
The sad dark Greek in a dark Greek restaurant. Unfair, unfair, since it has been said time and time again that the quality of Greek light is one of the land’s greatest treasures.
His is a family story, a condensation of history: Many of my relations, relatives—which is it, the word?—are here. My brother is driving a taxi. My aunt, one uncle, and two cousins are in the streets all day. They are occupied with selling Sabrett hot dogs. Down at the corner you will see a woman dressed in ten layers of clothing and standing in the rain. My mother’s sister and a very strong woman. But the Sabrett is not much in life, is it, would you say?…Still, I don’t know. It is a question for philosophers. You make a little list of this and that and the head becomes dizzy.
Oh the Greeks in the Manhattan streets. One in felt boots, wrapped up like a mummy, showing her red, gaptoothed face, face like roughened hide with a bright hole in it. She moves her cart from the Fifty-ninth Street subway station entrance, on down to Fifty-seventh, following the market. The thin, hawk-nosed seller outside the ABC building floats into my memory and mingles with the nerve-wrung Greek beside me.
And the library with the people huddling to escape the rain seemed like an old monastery surrounded by beggars waiting for alms. Only we, the man and I, a prelate and a nun, stand under our papal umbrella.
Just another ethnic. I like that word ethnic, Greek root, although I never heard it in my country. We have a belly-dancer on the weekend. That’s Turkish, not Greek, but what’s the difference? Danse du ventre on Friday and Saturday. Most of the dancers are American. They say they are college girls. Can you tell me true if they are college girls?
Probably not. Topless college girls. College call-girls. Another question.
I look up at the handsome Greek waiter and he smiles, showing perfect white teeth to complete his square, fleshless jaw. And what did he teach in Greece? Ah, he said, don’t be amused. It was English I taught. Of course my Greek education is not sufficient for a profession here, not sufficient in the least way. And I am finished back there, out of the system, because I got it in my head to come to the States.
So, this man with his striking perfections has in his circle of choices become a whole. He is a completed form, awaiting the content of the future. Youth, foot over foot on the rungs of the ladder of the teaching bureaucracy, breathing the uncertain air of a respectable possibility. No getting drunk in taverns—and also a cautious purity perhaps, avoiding the trap of many children. Black plastic briefcase, the girdle of Adonis.
The rain let up and down came the umbrella. I am off to the unspeakable restaurant, he said with a bow. And for me the crosstown bus braked to a stop on the corner of Sixth Avenue. And there he was talking with a woman standing under the Sabrett yellow and blue umbrella. She was standing like a thoughtful animal in its winter stall.
No special surprise when he telephoned a few nights later, one teacher of English to another, the occupied and the disoccupied, bound together by one of our great public institutions. There was the question of his knowing my name and he said that it was found on a slip of paper left at the reading desk. It was his idea that the curious could discover what they wished.
In accord with that it was possible to ask: If you taught English why aren’t you reading novels instead of Nervous Diseases?
Novels? I can’t understand novels…no more than a sheep.
Can you understand medical books?
The one I was looking at had nothing to say about my condition in life. A disappointment.
In the background there was the noise of the restaurant and he stopped now and then to speak aside in Greek.
Explaining himself to me he said, in a matter-of-fact way apparently so clear and unalterable to him it was without regret: I don’t know anything about English culture. I just happened to be able to learn the language, like singing. Maybe it turned out to be a pity. A bad Greek fate. I am ignorant, deeply ignorant.
Of course this admission made me trust him without reserve. No need to imagine harassment from such an abyss of self-examination.
Also, I can’t talk about Seferis or Kazantzakis…or even Aeschylus.
His correct Greek pronunciation bejeweled the already glittering consonants and vowels of the names of his countrymen. After a pause he said: Do not be disturbed. I am not fantastical. I have no fantasies.
What a pity, the Mediterranean voyager.
I have looked for him from time to time near the library. It would be nice to see him standing at the door, with the sun on his “classical” nose and all the storehouse of the Age of Pericles behind him in the dark vaults.
At Easter I heard from him again and for the last time. He said he was getting married to a well-to-do Greek-American who came as a customer to the restaurant.
Oh, the bitch.
It turned out that “well-to-do” was the result of a divorce settlement. I said: Watch out. She may have to give that up if she marries again.
He said, no, his understanding was that she was well-to-do from a lump sum. And he asked if that was the correct phrase and I said yes, a lump sum was quite acceptable.
And what will you do when you have married the lump sum?
He said: I will speak English to it.
That is all about my Greek exile, now a New Yorker, all about one of those “incomplete, sensitive men,” as the phrase has it in my Gissing notes. Such notes and phrases and quotations all day long attach themselves to real people like a handshake.
I think of him when I hear the wheels of the hot dog cart pushing up the street early in the morning, pushing all the way it now seems to me from a Greek village to midtown Manhattan, and with no amazement at what, covered with boiled onions or mustard, we will eat for breakfast.
I will remember him in the conservative black and white so well suited to a displaced martyr, a teacher of English. Not the heart to imagine the bright closet of turtleneck jerseys and zippered jackets he may be wearing out there in Queens, known as the borough of cemeteries.
And the Back Issues pile up in front of and behind experience, wedging the sandwich of real life in between. Pages are existence and the eye never stops on its lookout for the worm, the seed, the fish beneath the water, the next meal.
It is summer now and yesterday I crashed into a tree in order to avoid a deer on a June morning so foggy the deer perhaps thought it was dusk. An unusual happening, a drama, terrible, a trauma. But in the evening my injured shoulder and the awesome closeness to death gave way. A Back Issue from England, one of a month or so ago, told me that in France the population had in a hundred years risen by 25 percent but “the number of art students from 1,000 to 191,600.” The conclusion was that “such numbers lead to devaluation.” An interesting idea, displacing for a time shoulder, deer, death, and, in our creative usage, my “totaled” car.
December 17, 1981