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.
December 27, 2015
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