SUDDENLY OCTOBER

Suddenly it is October, with golden light and fluffy clouds, and on one of these beautiful autumn days last week, over on West Twenty-something between 9th and 10th Avenues, I stopped to look at a plain brass doorknob on one of the old houses. The house was empty and being renovated in an expensive way, judging by the look of things, but the original front door, and its doorknob, had not been bothered yet. I liked the doorknob because of its sturdy matter-of-fact shape, and I went up the stoop to take a picture of it. Down on the sidewalk a lady wearing a black hat, who looked to be somewhere in her 80s, had stopped to look at the house too. When I came back down she asked me if I owned it. She was the type of person who isn’t at all surprised by somebody who just wants a picture of a doorknob, and she told me that in the early 1960s this house we were looking at would have cost $8,000 to buy. “Chelsea was really dangerous back then,” she said. “I mean really, very, dangerous!” A house like this in Chelsea goes for millions now, she told me.


We walked towards 9th Avenue together and she told me that she lives on the East Side now but she’d come over West to visit a friend. She told me that when she was a girl she lived in another terrible neighborhood, South Brooklyn, which was also very dangerous way back when, and that now, of course, it is extremely expensive and called Park Slope. I asked her if she remembered the plane crash on 7th Avenue there in that part of Brooklyn, and she said she remembered it like it was yesterday. How sad, she said, the way the pilot tried to make it to Prospect Park but just couldn’t, and so the plane crashed onto 7th Avenue. I’ve known many people from Brooklyn who remember that day very well, and all of them remember the little boy who survived the crash and was found sitting on the curb somehow, stunned. But he didn’t live, his lungs had been too badly damaged, and to this day, in the main waiting room of big Methodist Hospital on 7th Avenue, there is a plaque in his honor—I’ve seen it—with the coins he had in his pocket, including a buffalo nickel. I’m not sure why, but it was the nickel that made my eyes prick when I looked at the plaque. You’d never imagine a plane had crashed there to look at that spot now.

The lady asked me where I live and I told her, and she wondered if I had heard the bomb when it exploded on West 23rd Street—the one the terrorist put in the dumpster outside the big building where all the blind people live—and I told her that I had, because it was so loud that it shook my old building. I told her that I felt the blast in my heart, which I did, and I knew right away that it was a bomb. She too had heard it, but it was distant. She said it had made a curious sort of whoosh, not loud, but different. It wasn’t like most city noises she’s used to. But she didn’t think too much of it before seeing the news, she said, because so many new noises can be heard in the city now, with all of the construction going on and all of the changes. And, she said, lots of old city sounds have become obsolete. 

I thought about foghorns when she said that, because I don’t think we hear them the way we used to in the city. It used to be that many of the boats up and down the Hudson and the East River had foghorns that would make deep resonant blasts on foggy nights—one hears them in old movies made in New York—but we don’t hear them much at all anymore now. And when I think about it, there isn’t as much fog as there once was either. I wondered if London has less fog now, too. I thought of an old thriller, I think Richard Widmark might have been in it, and an atmospheric scene with a man looking for an address somewhere way over in the East thirties, which turned out to be a dismal rooming house with gaslight and a terrible old landlady at the door in her housecoat. And the foghorns coming from the blackness that was the river somehow made everything feel much more lonely and dark and threatening over there at the edge of the world. I wondered as we got close to 8th Avenue if global warming is the reason for there being less fog, and I thought about how much I love the fog when it does come and roll through the streets of New York. I thought of a foggy night on my way to the grocery store when I looked up in time to see the Empire State Building appear suddenly from nowhere like magic and then disappear again just as suddenly, and the ticklish feeling I had that it had been done just to entertain me.


I asked the lady if she remembered the foghorns and she said she certainly did, especially in a neighborhood of Brooklyn where she’d lived once. She told me that she remembered a long-ago New Year’s Eve when a whole bunch of tugboats gathered in the narrows, that channel separating Brooklyn from Staten Island, and played “Auld Lang Syne” with their foghorns. She smiled at me. “It was so beautiful,” she said. She was going over to 23rd Street to wait for the crosstown bus, she told me, so we said goodbye then. I watched her walking away in her colorful scarves, and thought that the little story she’d just told me was one of the prettiest things I’d ever heard.

October 3, 2016
copyright Romy Ashby

LITTLE PLEASURES

 Two nights ago I saw my favorite bookseller sitting beside his folding table on West 19th Street so I crossed the street and went to visit him. Finding him sitting there always makes me happy, and very often he has a book that I want on his table. He never charges too much, and while Chelsea used to have lots of second-hand bookshops, his little table set up on the sidewalk is now the only second-hand bookshop left in the entire neighborhood. He always has good stuff and he puts thought into what he chooses to bring out, and he’s usually read the books himself.

Once when he saw me coming he pulled from his bag a collection of Charles Bukowski poems called The People Look Like Flowers At Last, and said, “I don’t know if you’ve got this or not but I saved it just in case.” It was one I didn’t have, and before he handed it to me he said, “Look what I found in it.” He opened the book and looked through it. “Oh, man,” he said, “I hope it didn’t fall out.” But suddenly there it was, a perfect four-leaf clover pressed between pages 226 and 227. We talked about Buk for a while, and I told him how years ago when Buk died I shocked myself by crying when I read his obituary, and he said, “Some people want to say Bukowski was a pervert, but I’ve heard he was a very nice person.”

When I saw him two nights ago, I bought a Joyce Carol Oates novel called Cybele in a Black Sparrow Press edition for four dollars. “I haven’t read that one,” he said, “but it’s such a nice copy.”

On my shelves I have many good books that came off his little folding table on the street. I looked at some of them today, books that I remember buying from him that I haven’t given away, and these are just a few:  Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork by Richard Brautigan, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell, Robert Hughes’s essays on art and artists, Nothing If Not Critical, The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, Blues For Mister Charlie by James Baldwin, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Five Plays by Ed Bullins, A Religious Orgy in Tennessee by H.L. Mencken, Gary Giddin’s essays on jazz, Riding on a Blue Note, and Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.

In one of my notebook diaries from last year I found this little note I’d written to myself:

Have J. book man’s two little poetry books here on the bed. Reading Ferlinghetti’s poems about razor blades and moldy mattresses reminds me of my little freak accident short story. I remember the bathroom in Grampa’s house in Montana, and the little slot in the wall for spent razorblades. Grampy called his razor and brush his ‘shavin’ equipment.’ Decades of spent razorblades went into that slot, down into the wall somewhere. My little story imagined the old house lifted by a tornado, and the decades’ worth of razorblades riding a twister, and some unlucky but not very nice person getting in the way of it and ending up just filled with razorblades.

I usually keep a little notebook handy so I can jot things down when they fly into my head, and I always like finding them later when I browse in my scribbles:


I’m in bed wondering the same thing as last night; what Honeykitty would think of Edith Massey if she could have met her. I think Edith would have liked Honey. Today on Sixth Avenue I looked into the wholesale florist and saw one of the kittens go to her mama and get a kiss. That flowershop cat is a good mother.

Those two notes made me realize that the two things that make me the happiest out in the city streets are my bookseller and the flower district kitties. At least twice a week I go up and visit the cats in their shops, usually after hours. Rats like flower bulbs, so all the flower businesses employ cats who spend their lives in those storefront jungles. They like to lie in the windows to watch the world go by, and some of them patrol the streets at certain times of the day, and you might see them working the cellars, too. They’re rough trade cats, very different in every way from my own kitty Honey who lives a life of comfort and privilege in my old tenement house, and I love all of them.

I’ve taken Honey up there on my shoulder to let her look in at the cats in the wholesale place, but it’s as if she just doesn’t see them. She'd much rather look into someone’s living room or a barbershop.

When the last bunch of Sixth Avenue kittens reached legal age in one of the wholesalers, I found out that all but two who were staying on had gotten jobs in various florists all around the city. The florists want them because they come already knowing every trick of the trade. The two who stayed were replacing two older flowercats who went to have their retirement somewhere in New Jersey.


The other night I stopped to look at one of the flowercats snoozing in the window on Sixth Avenue. I’ve known this one his whole life, ever since he was one of a litter of gray and white kittens piled into a cardboard box in the very same window, ten years ago. Usually he ignores me when I stop, but on this particular evening I guess he decided there was nothing better to see, so he acknowledged me. I was glad that he did, and he even had a pleasant expression on his face. I took his picture, and the little moment left me feeling happy all night.


July 8, 2016


Copyright Romy Ashby

LA TENDRESSE

Uncountable times have I gone over to the 25th Street flea market in the parking lot next to St. Sava’s church with the bust of Nikola Tesla out front. I've always admired the particularly beautiful juxtaposition of majestic and dissimilar buildings standing all around and behind the old church, including the Empire State Building. Never in any of those moments did I imagine what St. Sava’s might look like were it to catch fire, and last night it did, spectacularly. The fire looked like dragons, and in a few hours the church and all its quiet history was ruined. 


One day last fall I went into the church after the flea market. The doors were open and I sat in its dark mystery with the sunny day outside. And in January when I passed itwhitened and stillduring the big blizzard, I marveled at the way it looked in the snow and took a picture of it. Last night after finding out that St. Sava's had burned, I read about all of the struggles to raise the money for its repairs over the years, and about how its windows were blown out by anti communist terrorist bombs in the 1960s. I felt astonished at that; that such a thing had happened and I had not heard of it before. Which just reminded me of how little I really know about so much, about so much that is right here all around me, on these streets that I walk in all the time.


Today I had a doctor’s appointment downtown, and in the waiting room I saw people with very dramatic things wrong with them. There was one particular man called Petey who was completely stiff, like a light pole. He looked to be in his fifties somewhere, accompanied by a woman probably in her sixties. She put her hand on his back and called someone on her phone. “Hello?” She said. Then she said, “Hello, Sal? I’m here with Petey. Yeah, that’s right, but I wantidda check up on you. Here. Say hello to Petey.” She held out the phone and Petey leaned forward like the fire hydrant in front of my building that has been broken and leaning for weeks. Water is pooled in the base of the hydrant at the broken place, and every time I see it I wonder if I should go around the corner to the firehouse and let them know.

Petey spoke into the phone the woman was holding in front of his face. “Hey pal,” he said. “How ya doin? Yeah, I’m in the doctor’s office. You know I love you, right pal? You’re like a father to me.” The woman took the phone back then and said into it: “Now Sal, I want you to eat everything that’s on the plate for your lunch. And after you eat everything on the plate, then you can go to the piano. A’right?”

The doctor called me in then. She was supposed to have my blood test results but the mailroom was very slow, she said, so unfortunately she didn’t have them yet. She told me a few things about the MRI scan I’d had, mostly explaining how nerves in the spine can work or not work, very generally, it seemed, and she told me how terrible my insurance is. I had the MRI at night on a Sunday, and everything had felt eerie in the radiology department at such an odd time. The MRI machine was very loud inside. Some of the sounds it made had a sort of rhythmic, atonal monotony that made me feel as if I were trapped at a John Cage performance. How boring I’ve always found John Cage to be, I thought, lying there in the loud banging tube. How boring and tedious and claustrophobic, as boring as an MRI.

Today I was given a note to take to the file department, where they would make me a copy of the MRI reading. The file department was down in the basement, and the man and woman working there were much nicer than the doctor. The man told me it would take some time to make the copy, so perhaps I might take a walk. I told him I would walk uptown to look at the burned church, which both he and the woman had seen on the news. “Terrible,” the woman said. “If it is arson,” said the man, “God will most certainly punish whoever did it.”


I walked up Park Avenue to 25th Street and westward. The police had put up barricades around the shell of poor St. Sava’s. The street was full of quiet fire engines and in front of the ruined church I could see the bust of Nikola Tesla, unharmed, his head turned the way it always is to face Madison Park. The church looked like a war photograph. All that stone and brick. How could it burn? People wondered aloud about candles, or gasoline, if it had been done on purpose. Then there were people who walked along in pairs, talking, passing the church and its blown out windows without so much as a glance. A few feet away I saw Jack Hirschman, once the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, speaking into a phone. He was describing the ruined roof and the transparent quality of the shell. He turned and looked directly at me. “Jack,” I said. But he shook his head. He smiled and waved a finger to tell me he wasn’t Jack at all. “Someone else just mistook me for Jack Hirschman,” he said into the phone.


The Empire State Building stood back at a distance, her head full of mist, and never more somber. I walked back downtown. I thought of Sal, whoever and wherever he was, on the other end of the phone in the doctor’s office waiting room, the man for whom a piano waited, and I wondered if he had eaten his lunch the way he was supposed to.

Romy Ashby May 2, 2016

WINTER LIGHT

My feet were hurting me for a while, so I finally made an appointment to see a podiatrist. His office was on Park Avenue, and on the day of my appointment in the late afternoon, I saw Grand Central Station in the distance and the needle of the Chrysler Building sharper than ever, and I had the funny feeling of not being quite myself, but of playing the part of a lady going to a podiatrist on Park Avenue.

The doctor diagnosed me with something he called Manhattanitis. It has another name too, but that’s what he called it, and he said it comes from too much walking in the city. He gave me some inserts to put in my shoes that felt like putting an avocado pit under each of my feet. I said so to the nurse, who promised me that the feeling was normal and that it would go away, but I left not quite believing her.

While I was up in that neighborhood, I decided to look into the Scandinavia House, which I do every so often, and it always makes me feel good to go in and look at the Scandinavian people lunching in the café. Once inside, I learned that in their gallery upstairs was an exhibit of paintings by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, who I love very much. So I went up in the elevator and spent a long time just standing in awe before the paintings, stunned by the beauty and quiet grandeur of each one. Many of them I knew from a book that I have full of his pictures, but I’d had no idea that some of them were so large.

For a long time I sat on a bench in one of the gallery rooms and stared into the fog around St. Peter’s Church in Copenhagen: fog so true that I felt I could taste it. I looked at each of the quiet interiors, some with patches of cold sunlight on their floors, and had the thought I always have when looking at Hammershøi's paintings, which is that he somehow managed to paint the silence of those rooms in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else. And from the little card beside one of them I learned the beautiful Danish word for that sunlight: solskin.


Afterwards I started homeward in my strange-feeling shoes, full of the quiet majesty of the paintings, in the near-winter dusk on Park Avenue, thinking of the book of Hammershøi paintings at home and how I came to have it. It was years ago when I bought it at Skyline Books on 18th Street, long before it closed, from a girl working there who showed it to me.

I went into that bookshop at least once a week for years to browse and pet the shop cat and sometimes buy something, and into the 1990s I had them do book searches for me sometimes. I still remember two that I bought for my dad, books he wished for and was so glad to get: The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty, which he had seen as a movie in 1935, and The Small House Halfway Up in the Next Block, about the radio show Vic and Sade which was his favorite as a kid. When I took him to Skyline Books one day to browse the shelves (which he loved), my dad made a lot of loud huffing and puffing noises because he had Tourette’s Syndrome. But the guy behind the counter didn’t say anything to my dad about the noises the way some store clerks used to. It might have been because he was there with me, or because the guy behind the counter himself had a bad stutter.

The Hammershøi book was an extravagance. The day on which the girl showed it to me was to be her last day working at Skyline. She seemed sad when she told me so. The reason for her leaving the job, which she loved, was that she hadn’t been feeling well for some time—in her head, she said—so she had decided she would have to go back into the mental hospital. She was always such a serious and capable bookseller. It seemed to not make sense, but I believed her. On that day she told me she wanted to show me something she thought I would like especially, and she pulled from one of the shelves the big book of paintings. She didn’t try to make me buy it—none of them were ever pushy about that in there—she just wanted me to see it, and when I did I had to buy it. And I’ve never been sorry for that. I don’t remember the girl’s name, if I ever knew it, but I think of her every time I look at the book, and wonder whatever became of her. I miss Skyline Books every time I walk through that block of 18th Street where it used to be.

I crossed over to Fifth Avenue on my way home, and as I passed the Marble Collegiate Church at 29th Street I looked up at the rooster weathervane atop its steeple. I thought of St. Peter’s in Copenhagen in Hammershøi’s painting, with a rooster just like it on its own steeple, and felt comforted by the two roosters. There are moments during the daytime when the light is just right on Fifth Avenue, when the steeple of the Marble Collegiate Church and its rooster stand out beautifully against the Empire State Building behind it. And whenever I see it, I always wonder how many other people have noticed the rooster on that day. I’ll wonder about the person who put it there to begin with, and who made it. I went across 29th Street as it grew dark, and I realized as I neared home that podiatrist’s nurse had been right. The avocado pits had disappeared and my feet felt a thousand times better already.

Romy Ashby
December 27, 2015

Copyright Romy Ashby
Image of St. Peter's Church by Vilhelm Hammershøi 
The show is up at Scandinavia House well into February 2016