MEMORIES OF VALI BY CAROLE RAMER


The other night I went downtown to have my hair cut by Carole Ramer. Carole has been cutting my hair forever and I never want anyone else to do it. The moment I sat down she accused me of having trimmed my own ends and thrown off the layers. There would’ve been no point in my denying that I had. Because when it comes to hair, Carole is like a surgeon. She can recognize the tiniest alteration and its inevitable bad consequences, and the scolding I got is just the kind of thing that would have delighted Vali Myers if she’d been there.

Carole and I almost always talk about Vali when we see each other. Vali is the person who introduced us, as a gift, and I’m very glad she did. One thing I can say is that whenever she talked about Carole, it was always with more affection than she seemed to have for anyone else I heard her speak of. Vali thought Carole was the most wonderful creature in the world, and she adored everything about her. Just conjuring Carole’s old-school New York accent in her mind would make Vali laugh and say, “Oh, dear Carole!” She’d describe her as having looked like a beautiful black fox when they first knew each in the early ‘70s, when Vali lived at the Chelsea Hotel.

This month will mark the eleventh anniversary of Vali’s death. She died in Melbourne, Australia, on February 12th, 2003, and sometime after she did, Carole dictated to me some recollections she had. She’s given me permission to publish them here along with some photos taken during the trip she made to visit Vali in Italy:

In the ‘Seventies I was Abbie Hoffman’s assistant. He was a brilliant man who saw what was wrong with the system and tried to activate the youth. He was smart and funny and even people who hated him loved him. He would go and speak and rile everyone up. He burnt money at the Stock Exchange. Once he even took a little knife out and stabbed himself in the ass because he got so excited. He was the Iggy Pop of revolution.

Vali, Fanny the Donkey and a few of her dogs, Il Porto Photo: Carole Ramer
Abbie introduced me to Vali in 1970 or ’71. I had never met anyone like her. She looked like a beautiful fox with that flaming red hair, the tattoos on her face, all those millions of gold medallions around her neck, chains with pictures and lockets, and her hands and feet tattooed with stories of her animals and her valley.

She wore different colored skirts and those knee-high woolen things she used to call her gaiters, with stiletto heels. She lived in a little room without a bathroom at the Chelsea Hotel. The day I met her she lifted her skirt and peed in the sink and I just fell in love with her from that moment on.
Carole with Fanny and one of Vali's dogs, 1994 Photo: Vali Myers

We would walk around together and people would stare. She was such a creature but she was so down to earth. Then things happened in our lives, she went back to Italy, I went to prison, and we lost each other for years.

Twenty years later the New York Press had an article on Vali. It said she was back at the Chelsea Hotel. I called her and said, “You probably won’t remember me…” and she said, “Oh, Baby! Lovey!” I ran to the Chelsea and it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. I knew I had to go to the valley in Italy that I had heard about and seen pictures of, so I went in April 1994.

The valley was like Tarzan Land, and I couldn’t keep up with her. I’m not an outdoorsy girl. It was the most exotic time ever for me, going into caves and climbing. I was finally in the valley seeing it; there was the pig and the donkey. She would talk to those animals and they would come to her. She was totally part of those woods. Her beautiful little house had no windows, just openings, and there was no bathroom. She’d say, “You can wash your hair in the stream.” It was freezing, and I did it once.

She’d cook every night, and we’d eat with our fingers from a big, huge bowl and I slept with Vali up on her bed. She gave me a little tattoo. I remember her working with her little needles and her India ink, and then she’d spit on it and wipe it off. She had to go over it five times to get it right. It’s on my foot, and everyone asks, “What does that mean?” Vali told me never to tell anybody.

While I was there she was working on a drawing. I was thrilled to see a real drawing in the flesh. It was more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. She showed me what it looked like under a magnifying glass, almost like a snakeskin, it was so layered and thick. First she’d sketch the drawing out in pencil. She had this little pencil about an inch long. She said, “This is the pencil I’ve always used, and when this pencil goes, that’s the end of me.”

With Sheba, the Lower East Side dog Vali brought to Italy
It gave me a chill when she said that. I was fascinated with that pencil. I thought, that’s the pencil that created all those works of art that she did for all those years! She kept it in a little tin.

After that trip I would call her from time to time, she would write to me, and time went on. And then suddenly I found out that Vali was dying. When I learned that she had died, the first thing that came into my head was that the pencil had finished. She finished the pencil and that was the end of her time. I’ve never met anyone like her and I probably never will again. But somehow I always thought she’d be around forever.




February 1st 2014

STEVE AND YUKO

One day last week I walked downtown to meet two friends for lunch on Bedford Street. On Carmine Street, even though it was not yet one o’clock, the light was that of late afternoon and very pretty, so that the tops of all the old buildings were made rosy and golden. I saw a nun locking a gate enclosing the parking lot near Our Lady of Pompeii, while another lady stood watching as she turned the key. When the lock clicked, the nun said, “Amen!” The other lady laughed and then so did the nun, and I could hear them laughing all the way to Bedford Street. I was meeting Steve and Yuko, Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo, a pair I’ve known for a very long time.

In the middle of the ‘80s they hosted a regular poetry reading at the Knitting Factory, back when it was a little old place on Houston Street down a few steps below the sidewalk. Back then, Steve reminded me of a prizefighter with his accent and stance like an old-school Jewish featherweight in an old movie. Yuko had long black hair then. Now it is long and silver and she’s just as beautiful. Steve still reminds me of a prizefighter and I love them both very much. It’s funny how that works. At one of our lunches together a year or so ago, Steve said, “Remember when we used to have arguments on the sidewalk?” And I did remember, it’s true that we did, because sometimes I found Steve Dalachinksy very maddening. Sometimes I still do, but now the maddening parts are what I love most and I can’t imagine life in New York without him or without Yuko.

At lunch we talked about lots of things: About Steve Ben Israel and Taylor Mead and how much they are missed; how all the laundromats in that part of the Village have either disappeared or become drop-off only; Steve told a joke about how flying an airplane upside down would surely mean a crack up, and somehow we ended up talking about Chairman Mao and painters. I forget how we got onto that, but it made me think of a story that a Chinese lady I once worked with relayed to me that had to do with the mole on the Chairman’s face. One day she said she’d been a member of the Little Red Guard as a child, and I remembered a copy of the Little Red Book on my mother’s bookshelf. As a kid I would sometimes look at that book and be transfixed by the photograph of the Chairman. I was transfixed by his smooth hair, his placid expression and by the mole on his chin. The Chinese lady and I both worked at a publishing house up in Times Square in the early 1990s, and when I told her about my fixation with the Chairman’s mole, she said she wanted to take me somewhere at lunchtime. When the hour came, I followed her down Broadway to 42nd Street, which had begun its transformation from X-rated into something else. Various art-related people were using the X-rated movie marquees for artistic slogans, and for a time, painters had studios on the floors above the porn theaters. One of them was a Chinese man who this lady knew, and on that day she took me to visit him.

He was a painter who had gone through all kinds of terrible things during the Cultural Revolution before somehow vanishing into Tibet. He didn’t speak any English but he was very welcoming and he made tea for us there in his studio, which was full of big oil paintings of people laboring in fields. My co-worker spoke to him at length, pointing at me, and he laughed. Then he spoke to her at length, ending by making a big sweeping gesture with both arms, and she laughed. Then she told me what he’d said. After she had told him about my interest in the Chairman’s mole, he told about how he had been assigned the job of painting giant portraits of the Chairman’s face all over buildings and billboards, using ladders and scaffolds. The portraits were so enormous that the mole on the Chairman’s face all by itself was this big—and she made the big sweeping gesture he had made—it was tremendous, the biggest mole ever painted in the history of the world, and he had painted it over and over and over. I told Steve and Yuko the story and they laughed too. They both thought it would be good to write it down. I’d be glad to hear the story in a poem by either one of them. I wish I could remember the painter’s name, but I can’t.

In my bag I had my copy of Yuko’s new book, a book of poems she wrote all about art called STUDY. I bought it at a reading she gave in Downtown Brooklyn not long ago, where Steve made a wonderful little speech to the audience about Yuko; saying in essence how, despite the fact that they’ve lived together forever and fight all the time, he can think of no other artist more truthful and real than Yuko, and how she wrote those poems over years just for the sake of writing them, without ever imagining them in a book. I’ve been carrying it around in case I have to wait on a line or take the bus, so I can open it at random and read one of Yuko’s marvelous little pictures, like one called 7000 Oaks that she wrote for Joseph Beuys:

I reflected my lips
on Beuys’ corroded mirror
. . .
Did it really take
one third of a second?

After saying goodbye to both of them in front of the café, I walked home in a very roundabout way, because everything was covered in shadows and beautiful to look at. Suddenly it’s December. How did this happen?

8 December 2013 

Steve and Yuko 2012. Photo from: http://downtownmusic.net/yuko-otomo/at-the-vision-festival-06-11-2012#

 

FROM AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD


I was out in the neighborhood a few days ago when I saw a lady coming with a graying Scotty dog. She’s an older lady who walks dogs for people, not lots of dogs all at once, but one dog at a time. I’ve known her from the neighborhood forever. For years now, when I see her, I sometimes stop and chat with her and pet whoever she has in her charge. Having had a dog myself for a long time, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who also had dogs, and for the most part I would know the names of the dogs but not the people, and that’s just the way it always was and is.

This lady’s name I do know because at some point I heard somebody call her Gloria, but I don’t think she knows my name, although she knew my dog Pilar. Once I came upon Gloria sitting on a stoop with an elderly dog, and somehow we got on the subject of the neighborhood and how fast it has changed in recent years. She grew up in the neighborhood and raised her kids in it. She told me that back in the Sixties, when 8th Avenue ran both ways, there was an old Italian man who came down from way uptown in a horse-drawn wagon piled with produce to sell to the grocers. Sometimes I see Gloria on a stoop with an old lady whose voice sounds as if she’s swallowed helium, and for a long time that lady had a little tiny dog who always barked at the big ones going by, and the lady would say in her funny voice, “He tinks he da bossa da block!”

There’s a very old Afghan hound on 22nd Street who I always say hello to when I go by. He’s getting very rickety but he’s still elegant. He’s a male dog, but he’s always reminded me of the actress Sally Kellerman. I told that once to the man who stands with him in their place on the sidewalk, and he said, “Yeah, I can see that.” I got to know another neighborhood lady because of her dogs, Jerry and Daisy. For years I enjoyed chatting with her on the street corner when I’d run into her while walking Pilar. I didn’t know her name for a long time either and I don’t recall how I came to know it but I did—it’s Michele—and she’s become one of my dearest friends.  Her dog Jerry passed away not too long ago and I still miss seeing him. Once I took Daisy to stay with me while Michele was on a trip for a few days. Daisy was a perfect guest in every way, although I did have to take her to pee in front of the Chelsea Hotel or she wouldn’t go.

When I saw Gloria coming the other day, I thought of another lady with a dog who I haven’t seen in a while, and the day that I found a big book of limericks by the trash. I was reminded of my father, who always liked risqué limericks, and I opened it and read the first one:

There was a young girl of Aberystwyth
Who took grain to the mill to get grist with
The Miller’s son Jack
Laid her flat on her back
And united the organs they pissed with.

It made me laugh, as I thought of my dad and felt a pang. Up above me on a stoop was sitting this familiar neighborhood lady, all covered in paint as usual, with her shiny black dog. “I just found a book of limericks,” I said to her, and she replied, in her old-style accent, “Oh yeah? Is it Ogden Nash?”

I never learned her name and I’m sure she didn’t know mine, but there comes a point, I think, when it is too late to ask. Some time ago I was surprised to see her somewhere over on the East Side. When she saw me she said, “Get back to the neighborhood!” And when she did—and I’m not sure how this works—it gave me the coziest feeling. She didn’t even stop, but the little comment felt full of affection, of a kind there is between familiars on the block.

The neighborhoods of Manhattan have always felt to me like individual little towns. And even though that is diminishing with so many huge new buildings and so many less businesses owned by regular people, the neighborhoods still have that feeling. I realized that I haven’t seen the lady with the black dog since the day she told me to get myself back to the neighborhood. I’ve wondered about her, because people get priced out very often these days, so I stopped to ask Gloria if she had seen her.  And she put her hand on her heart and told me the lady had passed away. She didn’t know her name either. “I know her like I know you,” she said. We stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes feeling very sad, and then we parted.

I wish I had known the lady’s name. She was wonderful. She always wore blue overalls covered with paint and a blue or red kerchief tied over her hair. She talked just like a friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn and went to Erasmus High School. She looked Irish. She must have liked limericks or she wouldn’t have asked, “Is it Ogden Nash?” I kept the book, and I’ll always associate it with her. Walking home, I thought of another neighborhood lady who looked just like Anne Bancroft. She was crippled and I would see her resting against parking meters. Once I told her what I thought and she said, “Oh, Anne Bancroft was a wonderful actress.” It’s been years now since I’ve seen that lady, and come to think of it, all the parking meters have disappeared too.

September 27, 2013

Copyright Romy Ashby

ON FIFTH AVENUE

Some of my most unexpected thoughts come to me while I’m walking in the city, and most surprising of all is when an old memory suddenly resurfaces for no apparent reason. On Saturday morning I decided to walk up to the Mid-Manhattan library, which is on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, to borrow a book. It was sunny out but Fifth Avenue was all in shadow as I walked because it was still early. At about 30th Street, while I waited for the light, I thought of a little boy who I met a long time ago on a train.

I was only about eighteen years old then, and the train was going from France to Italy. The boy’s name was Pier Luigi. He was seven years old and his head was wrapped in white bandages because he had just had brain surgery in Paris. He was with his mother and father and his grandmother, and then there was one other lady and myself in the sleeping compartment we were sharing. I sat beside Pier Luigi. He was friendly but he didn’t say much. He mostly looked out the window and his mother and father and grandmother didn’t say much either, and they were very careful with him. I remember his mother opening a bag full of bread and cheese and sausage and making sandwiches for everyone, including me.

Across the street and up a block from the Mid-Manhattan library sits the big 42nd Street library and the two lions. As I went into the Mid-Manhattan I felt a pang of anxiety, because there’s a plan to do away with it and move its books to the 42nd Street library—once they’ve finished the gut job they plan for that library—all of which I think is wrong and terrifying. I went up the escalator to the second floor and into the P section of the fiction shelves, where I found the book I wanted: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction, but I got sucked into one of his other novels by accident this summer and felt like reading another one.

The second floor of the Mid-Manhattan library only has an escalator going up, so I pushed the button for the elevator to go back down. While I waited, I looked at a librarian sitting quietly at her desk working on something and I wondered what kind of opinion she might have about the plans for the libraries around the city. I heard it said in a ‘Save the Library’ meeting that librarians were ordered by their bosses to keep mum on the subject should anyone ask, which says a lot about the plans, I think. I thought of the librarian I knew as a child and how it felt whenever she stamped the card with the due date and pushed a book across the counter to me. Here in the present day, the Mid-Manhattan librarian printed out a receipt for me with the due date and slipped it inside the front cover. As I left, I thought how much better the old way was, with the little pocket inside the book to keep the card in, because I always lose the receipt and then I’m never sure when the book is due.

I walked back downtown feeling glad to have the book but worried about the library, and then my thoughts went wandering. Everything was very calm on Fifth Avenue. I walked over to Park Avenue and everything was calm there too, and I thought about all of the terrible things going on in the world at that very moment, and what the president has been saying and how much I don’t want us to drop bombs on anyone, and I saw a doorman standing in the sunshine in front of a big, grand old Park Avenue building. His eyes were closed, and he was standing on the sidewalk in his gray and white uniform as if he were sleeping. And just then he opened his eyes and looked right at me. I imagined what it might be like to live in one of those old fortresses, and how nice it might be to ride up and down in an elevator in stead of climbing all kinds of stairs. Earlier in the week I visited a friend in the Dakota, where the elevator has a nice, cushioned seat to sit on. I always sit when I ride in that elevator, and every time I do, it reminds me of a confessional.

I made a big circle back over to Sixth Avenue where, between 27th and 28th Streets, the wholesale flower shops had boxes of flowers and little trees standing all over the sidewalk. And almost hidden in the shadows between two buckets of leafy branches sat the mysterious gray cat who on occasion comes up, when the iron doors in the sidewalk are opened, from the depths of the cellar. Lots of the florists have cats, maybe because mice like to eat certain plants, and they’re always friendly. I had my camera so I took his picture and petted him.

All the while I held the book by Per Petterson in my hand. When I looked at it, I thought of the boy on the train again. Then I realized that what had probably made me think of him was the name Per, because when he told me his name, he had said it as if it were ‘Per Luigi.’ And I can still hear him say it. When night came on the train, the bunks were opened and I had a top one. After the lights were switched off, Pier Luigi’s grandmother tucked everybody in, even me. I can still see her silhouette as she stood on the little ladder and stuffed the blanket in so I felt strapped to the bunk. I don’t remember if she said anything. I don’t think she did.

THE DISAPPEARING CHURCH TRICK


Dear Friends,
Once in a while I post a Walkers essay from the past when it feels right to do so. Yesterday evening I walked by the place where Mary Help of Christians Church stood on East 12th Street and I could see that it was almost entirely gone now. Back in 2007 was when the church got its notice, and there was a ‘last mass,’ which I attended. Then, the church was granted a stay of execution of sorts, which lasted five years, until now. Mary Help had a big, active congregation. For a long time, while it was closed, I would see people holding mass for themselves on the steps of the church. This past month I’ve watched it be demolished and felt sad. So it feels right to post this one now. I went looking in my pictures, and found some from that Sunday in 2007, and I will post a couple of them here today.–R.A.


There was a time when I didn’t know such a thing as closing a church with a whole parish begging for it not to happen could occur, but it does, all the time. Our Lady Queen of Angels up in Harlem was closed by the police and some of its parishioners were arrested, all ladies, I read. I was shocked the day I read in the Post about how the Cardinal lured the priest from old Our Lady of Vilnius uptown to meet with him and then had all the locks changed while he was out. After I read that I ran downtown to see for myself. I’ve noticed that little church whenever I’ve had occasion to go to New Jersey in a car, crouching there right near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. The archdiocese had put the little church on its vanish list even though it had an active parish just like Our Lady Queen of Angels did. Whenever they close down an old church saying it has irreparable damage, usually invisible to the naked eye, there seems always to be some kind of luxury residential building or huge dormitory waiting to spring up on its spot.

When I got to Our Lady of Vilnius it looked very lonely sitting there and people had left a sign protesting its closing. Then I saw three old geezers on the steps.








Old geezers are good for the lowdown on anything, especially if you’re a lady. They told me that it was all true. They told me the priest’s elderly housekeeper tried to keep out the thugs sent down by the Cardinal with their locksmithing tools. “This is where Father sleeps, you know,” she told them, but they weren’t listening. While the old guys told me all about it, a flicker of motion caught my eye at the window in a door.

“Yeah,” one of them said, “They got t’ree guards in there, guardin’ the place.” They said that some of the people turned away from the church had cried. The guys told me they themselves are members of the Knights of Columbus, and now their meeting place was closed. One of them said the priest asked him if he knew of anything in his building, because he was locked out of his rooms with no place to live. Another of the old guys said he wasn’t sure that it was a good thing that the Post ran a photo of the Our Lady of Vilnius priest smoking a cigar. “That don’t look good,” he said. But one of the others said, “I don’t see nothin’ wrong wit’ dat. Maybe he felt a lotta anxiety, ya know, and the cigar, it calmed him down a little.” They showed me the bright new shiny lock on one of the doors. “And meanwhile,” one of them said, “they got all the money in the world in Rome. But they gotta close down the church. And they got a senior center in the basement. So now they got no place to go.”

I asked the boys if I could take their picture, and they posed for me on the steps. I thought one of them looked like Al Lewis and told them that. Al’s lookalike said, “Yeah, but he’s dead. He was older than me. He had that restaurant for a while on Bleecker and Leroy, Grampa’s.” I told them how one day I saw him standing on the sidewalk out front of that restaurant when it opened. I was surprised by how tall he was. On the Munsters he looked little, but on the street he towered over me. Normally I don’t bother famous people on the streets in the city, but I couldn’t resist Al Lewis. I said, “Hi Grampa.” He smiled down at me and he was just as friendly as he could be. He told me all about how he got his start in the theaters on the Lower East Side and he gave me a card with a caricature of himself on it. Grampa’s restaurant is long gone, but while it was there it seemed to do a good business. The building was demolished and replaced with a luxury residence. “The archdiocese has a lotta money,” said the one in the baseball cap. “And here they go, closing down churches and hospitals.” Al’s lookalike re-lit his cigar and said, “And if dat wasn’t enough, the price of stamps is goin’ up again, too.” The three of them sat shrugging and shaking their heads.

A few weeks ago I learned that Mary Help of Christians on East 12th near Avenue A was having its very last mass. I had never been inside it, but many times I went to their flea market. That’s where I bought my black suede platform boots for $5, the ones that eventually both broke at the same time when I was standing at a light on Park Avenue and 81st Street. I was going to a party in a very snooty big gallery. I had to hobble onto a bus heading to Madison Avenue where I bought a pair of disposable hospital slippers in an old drugstore. I threw the platform shoes in the trash bin right where they died, on Park Avenue, and wore the slippers to the party. It was one of the most glamorous things that had ever happened to me, and it only cost $3.99—for the slippers.

I decided to go to the last mass.

It was packed with sad people of all colors and types. It was a lovely old church, and very solid. The archdiocese had apparently decided attendance had dwindled although nobody there seemed to think so. At the end of the mass and the long giving of thanks for having had the church for more than 100 years, children were let up into its belfry to ring the old bell. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk and listened as it rang and rang and rang.

June 7th 2007


Priests outside Mary Help of Christians for the 'last mass' in May 2007

Note: Our Lady of Vilnius still stands next to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a lawsuit filed by its congregation having halted its demolition, but to date they have not been able to use it.

Copyright 2013 Romy Ashby

TANTE ANNIE'S MACHINE

Not long ago I wrote about two painters I watched making a big white rectangle on the side of the building on 25th Street where an old sewing machine ad used to be. A day or so later, passing the same spot, I looked up and saw that the new ad was already completely finished and there stood a giant bottle of Stella Artois Cidre and three nice apples. The painters had done a good job. It was early evening and still hot, and looking at the ad made me feel as though a bottle of ice-cold cider would be the most delicious thing in the world. Then I noticed something the painters had done that struck me as very classy. The sewing machine that had been on that spot for so long, like the faded ad for Griffon Shears on 19th Street and 7th Avenue, were both done by the Mack sign painting company, with its company signature in capital letters at the bottom of each. Looking at the big bottle of cider, I saw that the present-day painters had not only left the old MACK signature where it was, but they had painted their own signature, Colossal, respectfully beneath it.

I was on my way to the Morgan Library, where on Friday evenings between six and eight PM, anyone can go in free of charge, and I decided to go through 28th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues on the chance that I might see the big orange tomcat who lives there in the Holiday Florist shop. He doesn’t lord it over the sidewalk as much as he once did because he’s now seventeen years old, but every so often he’ll still emerge and I luck out and get to pet him. He’s a rough-looking cat and I know that dogs fear him because I’ve seen it, but he’s always very sweet to me and apparently to everyone else too. This I know because one evening as I petted his greasy fur and he purred, one of the men working in the shop told me a little grimly that other women—one in particular—came around looking for him and that he behaved the same way with them too. This time there was no sign of him but as I passed his shop the man standing in the doorway gestured with his thumb when I asked, and said: “Sleeping.”

At Broadway and 29th Street I had to stop and admire the beautiful old Gilsey Hotel building and its clock in the early evening light. Somewhere I read that the Gilsey Hotel was the first in New York to have telephones in its rooms and that Oscar Wilde once stayed there. Looking up from that spot on the street, the tops of the buildings were all so grand that I had to stand and look for a few minutes. Then I went across 30th Street towards Madison Avenue, and on the way I saw a pretty old building of nine or ten stories being gutted. At its door were many individual buzzers, and thinking of the lost apartments that went with those buzzers made me wonder about all the people who had lived in them and I felt sorry. I looked at many more pretty buildings as I walked, I looked at a couple of nice old shoe repair shops and at a second-story dentist’s office on Madison Avenue where one day I looked up and saw the dentist himself, with his glasses on his forehead and a worried-looking patient on the chair. And looking at all of it, I thought that even with all the losses, New York as a city still counts as Magnificent.

In the Morgan Library I ran into a friend and together we looked at the marvelous books in Mr. Morgan’s collection. We read a hand-written letter on display in a case, written to Mr. Morgan by his head librarian expressing her huge worry over his health problems and her monumental relief upon hearing that he was okay after all, when in fact he was not okay and she would never see him again. We looked at all the old drawings in the new acquisitions exhibit, and in the big open center hall, two cellists were giving a concert for a lot of people sitting at tables having wine and listening. As we passed the little service area I saw a waiter polishing glasses.

My friend walked west with me and on 30th Street she looked at the building being gutted and said, “Look, there’s someone still living up at the top.” And indeed, there was one lighted pair of windows, an air conditioner in one and knickknacks visible against the glass of the other. On 7th Avenue, when she saw the big Stella Artois ad and the Mack signature above the new one, she too found it an elegant gesture. She said she thought the old sewing machine ad had been a real sweetie. And when I wondered aloud if anyone still uses old sewing machines like that, she said, “I do.” She told me that hers is a hand-crank machine called a Flora that once belonged to her great-great Aunt Annie, and that she uses it all the time.

Once home I looked up the Mack painting company and learned that both the Griffon Shears ad and the Necchi sewing machine ad were painted by a man named Harry Middleton, who bought the company in 1930 for $75. His son Bob carried the torch, and I read his descriptions of how the ads were made. Then I looked up the Colossal painters and read about how they use the same traditional methods and techniques of the old-time painters, who are called Wall Dogs. The Colossal painters are trained by experienced Wall Dogs, but theyalso come with a natural ability. Because what’s really needed to paint a giant, real-looking sewing machine or bottle of cider by hand is an eye for it.


August 13, 2013

Copyright Romy Ashby

WHITEWASH

On my way down Seventh Avenue from 28th Street yesterday I felt a raindrop. When I looked up the sky was silver and I noticed, on the side of the handsome old building where an advertisement for Necchi sewing machines used to be, two painters hanging on a scaffold. They were painting a big white rectangle to prepare for whatever ad they’ll put there.  One of the painters looked to be a lady, and I saw that she had just felt a raindrop too. She had her paint-roller held aloft in one hand, and I watched her look up at the sky and then over at the other painter. On the scaffold I could read the words, “Always by Hand.” An ornate Necchi sewing machine on a wooden table had been fading there in the old ad for a very long time, and a couple of years ago when I realized it had vanished, I felt suddenly unsure of where I was.  I thought of how once lots of people used to find those wooden sewing tables put out for the trash, their machines gone obsolete, and use them as bedside tables.

A couple of weeks ago I went into the Ottendorfer Library on Second Avenue, a little branch I’ve always loved for its cast iron mezzanine up a little flight of iron steps. The last time I’d been there was with a friend who went up to the mezzanine, from where she could see down into the open restroom. “The toilet looks so innocent and funny and so does the little sink,” she said when she came down. She brought down a book of essays by John Waters and checked it out. This time when I went in I was by myself and the mezzanine had been emptied of books and closed off. There was a time when I wouldn’t have worried, but now things are different. The Ottendorfer was the city’s first free public library, opened in 1884, and it is landmarked. But with the trouble around the whole library system, with librarians ordered to “weed” books having the slightest blemish, with all branches becoming emptier and emptier and with the plan I was told the library has to be “paper-free” within a few years, I worry very much.

At the sight of the unused zip tubes in the catalog room of the 42nd Street library some days ago, the scary plight of the post office came to mind. I had read about the marvelous pneumatic tube system the post office used here once, as wondrous as the one in Paris, in E.B. White’s book of essays called Here is New York. Between 1897 and 1953, miles of pneumatic tubes connected twenty-two city post offices, and canisters zoomed from one to another at 35 miles per hour. They carried 95,000 letters a day, and once, a kitty. He came out a little queasy but okay. I remember a scene in Francois Truffaut’s movie Stolen Kisses showing a letter being sent through the Parisian pneumatic post and how magic and mysterious it looked. It’s obsolete in Paris now too, and I can’t help but worry about the post office in general.

A while ago I went to see a play being put on in the upstairs floors of the big Farley post office on 8th Avenue; the one with the solemn promise of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” chiseled across its great façade. The play was an epic about the 400-year history of New York, and while it should have been fun to go up into the old offices above the great hall, it made me feel blue to see them all empty.  And on the floor above that, the actors made use of the vast, empty sorting gallery while dusty evening sunlight came in through windows that looked as though they hadn’t been washed in fifty years. The theater program let the audience know that the old Farley post office will one day soon be the new Penn Station. And I left filled with dread. I have no trust that the changes planned for the old post office will be respectful of its grace, and I walked home feeling the strange missing of things that are still here but on the edge of an abyss.

Some of the changes in the city are small ones, but they can be so incomprehensible when I encounter them suddenly that I feel the way I do  when I stand up too fast. Such as with a little shop on the Lower East Side I happened upon with my friend Carole Ramer one day, selling nothing but what they called artisanal popcorn. I looked in and saw the popcorn, and I didn’t know what to do.  That used to be the bargain district, and most of the underwear shops have disappeared! Carole told me, that afternoon, about a man she used to know down there, from whom she bought her very excellent goosedown quilt. His name was Izzy Izkowitz, and she said he was a funny little guy who was absolutely covered in feathers, even in his nose and ears. Somehow, hearing Carole tell about Izzy Izkowitz and his Russian assistant who would stuff in extra feathers for a bottle of vodka made me feel a little less lost.

When I noticed the scaffold yesterday I still missed the sewing machine, but watching the lady painter feel the raindrops up there, where she was hanging the way whoever painted the sewing machine must have done once, I felt more gladness than dread. I went home to get my camera. When the rain stopped it was late afternoon and the light was very beautiful. I went back up to 25th Street but the painters had parked their scaffold up near the roof and disappeared, leaving their big white square an empty canvas for another day.

July 24, 2013
Copyright Romy Ashby