PICTURES OF THE GONE WORLD

On Seventh Avenue the other day my bookseller friend waved me down with two little books from the City Lights Pocket Poets series. He’d had them set aside. He figured I’d pass by eventually, he said. One was Golden Sardine by Bob Kaufman, who I love, and the other Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He let me have both for not a lot of money and I felt happy, as much because he’d thought of me as for the books themselves. As I walked downtown I thought of a cold day long ago when I stopped to look at some old books, on his table on that same corner, and bought one for my dad. I’ve forgotten exactly what the book was now, it might have been Herman Melville or maybe Joseph Conrad, both of whom my dad loved, but it was old and fragile and I had just enough money to buy it. As I walked away, the bookseller came hurrying after me with another old book, its pages edged with gold, and said that I had to have it; the two really went together, he said, and he gave it to me. It was held together with a piece of twine. I sent the two books together to my dad for Christmas, with a note telling him the story. He loved the story as much as the books. My dad was an eccentric with no money, but he kept his own little collection of books in his room full of cigarette smoke, books he’d had since the ‘40s, and he referred to them as ‘My library.’

To this day I love the bookseller, with his beard and his coat, the way he can talk about books and the backstories of their authors, and sometimes he’ll tell a good story of how he came to have a particular book. In another place or time he might have had a fine shop, and in my neighborhood, as rich as it has become, his table out on the corner is in fact the finest—and only—bookshop there is.

I thought of another old guy who used to come out onto 7th Avenue, laden with bags, and spread a cloth over the sidewalk. The bags were full of seashells and old bottles—sometimes just pieces of old bottles—and he would spend a few hours arranging them on the cloth. They looked beautiful. He didn’t sell anything, it was just the arrangement he was after and how magnificent it looked. The bottles were all clear or whitish glass, but in certain light, colors would appear in them like magic, and the shells were all different kinds and shapes. How lovely a striped seashell looked beside an old medicine bottle! It seems to me he was always there on silver days but without rain, and thinking of him, with his big nose and gray hair sticking out of his cap, laying each bottle and shell onto his cloth, I remembered these lines from “The Chambered Nautilus,” about a seashell and the creature that built it:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul…
Let each new temple, nobler than the last
Shut thee from Heaven with a dome more vast

And I felt sure that if I were to recite them to my bookseller, he would know they were by Oliver Wendell Holmes. 

I was on my way to the B & H Dairy on 2nd Avenue, located on the half of the block between 7th Street and St. Marks that survived the gas explosion last week. The big empty square full of bricks on the other half, where four beautiful old buildings stood for more than a century, and the blasted out windows around it, reminded me of the way so much of the far East Village used to look—like London after the Blitz—when I lived there in the ‘80s. Block after block of ruins, deliberately burned by landlords who wanted the insurance money. 

And I thought too about all of the more recent, deliberate, ‘legal’ destruction; the knocking down of perfectly good old buildings of a particular size, to make way for bigger, boring, glass ‘luxury’ buildings that always rise in their places. I remember standing in 2005 on the corner of 8th Avenue and 18th Street, where two pretty and well-kept buildings were being demolished. A man next to me said, “I don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with those buildings. Why are they tearing them down?” He said aloud what I was thinking, and I went home and got my camera.

Two cops were standing outside the B & H when I got there, but it wasn’t open, they told me. The manager was standing outside, though, and he was sweet. “We don’t have gas yet so we can’t cook anything,” he told me. “All we can do right now is clean,” he said, and he smiled. “I hope next week.” It is truly pure luck that finds B & H and Gem Spa—that half of the block—still there. And with the way things are going in the city, everything small and utilitarian has a cowering, precarious feel about it. 

Is it worse, I wondered as I looked at 2nd Avenue, when buildings are leveled by something ‘accidental?’ To me it seems worse when it’s done on purpose, maybe even especially when it’s ‘legal.’ Somebody always gets pushed out. When a rich family bought a tenement on East 3rd Street and forced out the tenants to have the entire building for themselves, it was astonishing. With their money they could have bought a place in any wealthy neighborhood. Why displace working-class people from their homes?

Since that day ten years ago when I wondered at the little buildings being demolished I’ve taken thousands of pictures, and so many are already Pictures of the Gone World, just like Ferlinghetti’s book. Sometimes it feels as if the whole city is built on cracking ice.

April 4, 2015

copyright Romy Ashby


SENSIBILITY

A few days ago, before the real cold started, I stopped at the corner of 19th Street and 7th Avenue to look at what my bookseller friend had on his table. I’m always glad to see him sitting there with his long white beard and he usually has something I want. “Hey, have you ever read this?” he said when he saw me, and he tapped Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer by Kenneth Patchen. As it happened, I had just the night before read something about the scandal that book had caused in 1945, and about how Kenneth Patchen had sprouted a mysterious black fur all over his tongue. So I bought it, and also Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, which I had read a hundred years ago but completely forgotten. On Sunday night I read it again, remembering how good it is as snow began to fall outside. It snowed all night, and listening to the plows rumbling by and the radiator banging away inside I felt very lucky because there are lots of people in this rich new city of New York who still live outside, more down and out than ever.

In the morning everything was white. I had to go downtown for an appointment and on the way I admired  ornate handrails and ornaments made of wrought iron, beautifully glazed in frozen snow.  On Lower Broadway I looked in at the gravestones standing together behind the iron cemetery gates of Trinity Church; magical and somehow innocent, and very, very old. I thought of a little book I bought from the bookseller’s table in the middle of January called Wrought Iron: Its Manufacture, Characteristics and Applications, and how curious and poetic I found the scientific analyses of iron presented in tables. Iron hardware with varying phosphorus and copper content was taken from such places as the hydraulic elevators of an office building in Chicago, the hull of a tugboat named “Margaret” in Baltimore, and an elevated train structure in New York. The iron pipe taken from the train trestle was found to be in very good shape after having been part of the old El since 1877. I read about Egyptologists discovering wrought-iron hasps and nails in ancient tombs “as lustrous and as pliant as the day on which they were made,” and I learned that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was built to “endure for centuries” using wrought iron in all kinds of places within its great structure. Buildings described in the book as “permanent” are all full of wrought iron, even if you can’t see it. And that’s not counting all the old buildings with cast-iron façades. I stood outside the old cemetery thinking about how easy it is to imagine St. John the Divine as being permanent, and the Empire State Building too, even though a plane once flew into it and made a huge hole. The Empire State Building is 84 years old, and to me it has never looked more solid and sensible.

It was cold on my way back uptown so I was glad for my woolen cape over my coat, and especially for my black rubber boots that meant I could wade through icy lagoons. Looking into the sky at the swirling snow was intoxicating. On Sixth Avenue I looked through the steamy windows of the florist where the two blasé cats live and there sat a new one, young-looking and orange, way at the back of the shop. I tapped my ring on the glass and the cat looked at me but didn’t budge. I walked through 29th Street where time seemed to slip back a few decades with all the old-style shops selling scarves and hats and wedding dresses in little buildings with warm windows and fire escapes covered in snow. Men pushed carts piled with boxes through the slush, and when I turned a corner there was the Empire State Building, regal and plain, standing behind the lovely old Gilsey House Hotel with its pretty clock. 

I’ve looked at those two buildings standing there together more times than I can count, but they've never looked as pretty or as near as they did in that moment. In the snowy light the Empire State Building looked like a lady wearing the coat she bought at Lord and Taylor in 1960 that is still perfectly good. And I was struck with a distinct impression of Old New York worrying about her memory and wondering if she has Alzheimer’s, because of the way she keeps losing things. So many things she kept for years have been disappearing, and it’s been happening for a while—a string of little buildings gone, pretty letters that used to glow at night that she can’t put her hands on—each vanished entity taking with it an invisible but palpable store of history and memory. I thought of my friend Pete, who at the age of 99 showed me the coin purse she’d had since she was no more than twenty—made of leather with a silver snap clasp—and said, “Sometimes I sit and just marvel at the fortunes in coins that have passed through this little purse.”

I felt a fleeting deep mourning for the Old Lady New York who can’t recognize herself, and for the Empire State Building who has to put up with being dressed as a giant lava lamp whether she likes it or not, surrounded by loud young buildings that stand around admiring their reflections in each other. But in that pretty moment there on 29th Street, everything looked as beautiful as an old photograph of the Old City in her prime. “Don’t worry,” I thought at her, “You don’t have Alzheimer’s. It’s just age.” Telling her the truth, it seemed to me, would serve no purpose.

Once home I was happy to find the radiator banging because sometimes, in very cold weather like this, old boilers just decide to give up.

February 4, 2015

Copyright Romy Ashby 2015

THE WONDERFUL CAFE EDISON


I was with a friend a few days ago when I noticed her nail file as she drew it out of a little velvet sheath. To me it looked like frosted glass studded with diamonds, and it was both glitzy and glamorous at once. It had on it a little label reading: Made with Swarovski Elements. This made me laugh and my friend too, because she’s a bit of an old fashioned Guidette; she reads romance novels and her winter coat is lined with faux leopard, but she knows what she’s made of and she knows it’s funny.

I had invited her to go with me to have lunch at the old Café Edison on 47th Street, where I used to go at least once a week, because soon it will be no more. It’s closing for the worst, saddest, and most ungenerous reason, and I wanted to sit in its unpretentious grandeur one more time. On the way, walking up Broadway through the crowds of people in Times Square, I thought of the big ball, covered in Swarovski crystals, dropping on New Year’s Eve and how glad I always am to not be there while it’s happening. I thought of the chandeliers at the Met that look like exploding galaxies made of Swarovski crystal, and the way they dim so elegantly at curtain time. I told my friend that her nail file had made me think of those things and we both had the idea that someone at Swarovski must have decided to make use of the sweepings in the crystal factory by sticking them all over nail files and calling them ‘elements.’

For almost seven years I worked in an old publishing house in Times Square and during that time I had lunch at the Edison at least once a week, sometimes by myself and sometimes with one or two or three co-workers. Someone would say, “Edison?” and I remember how it felt, going down in the elevator and out onto Broadway to walk up to the cafe in its block full of old theaters. It always felt a little like a special occasion, even though it wasn’t. One day a man held the door for me as I was going in, and I knew him, but not from where. I bought a little time by saying, “Well, hi, how are you?” He seemed to be wondering how he might know me, too, and said, “Oh, I’m doing pretty well,” and I realized he was Keith Carradine. He saw me realizing it and laughed when I apologized. He was just as gracious as I might have imagined he would be had I ever thought of it. That kind of thing must happen to people like him all the time.

Many book publishing people in that neighborhood thought of the Edison as their café. I remember a certain associate editor who saw one of the senior editors having an earnest lunch at a table with someone she knew to be from McGraw Hill, and for a few days after, all of the editors working under that senior editor worried that she was going to leave the company and leave chaos in her wake. All of the actors and stagehands from the Broadway theaters surrounding the Edison thought of it as theirs as much as the publishing people did, and so did the people from the New York Times and the men with long beards who came over from the Diamond District on the other end of 47th Street, but I think the Café Edison belonged particularly to the magicians who sat and dazzled each other with conjuring at their magic table every day at lunchtime for thirty years.

My friend and I had a sweet waitress, an old pro with a Café Edison baseball cap sitting on the bun she wore, who took down our orders over her glasses. I had a grilled cheese sandwich deluxe and my friend had a hamburger. I told her about a particular Guidette I used to work with at the publishing house who had the big frosted hair and long painted nails so popular then, especially among the Long Island Railroad crowd. One morning she arrived all smiles and as she took off her coat she said to me, “I’m going to tell you something, just for your enjoyment, and if you wanna laugh, g’head, it’s why I’m tellin’ you.”

“What is it?” I asked her. She drew two tickets from her big Massapequa pocket book and said, “I am going to see Barry Manilow at the Garden tonight, and I can hardly wait!”

I did laugh, and so did she, because she too knew what she was made of and she knew it was funny.  She was a wonderfully funny girl and I remember the day she came in carrying a Bloomingdale’s garment bag because she had a blind date that night, with a dentist. All day long she could hardly sit still. Finally she changed into a pink satin dress and left to meet the dentist somewhere deep in Midtown. When I asked her later how it went, she told me how she’d been crapped on by not one, but three pigeons on her way to the restaurant, how she’d washed the crap off her dress in a diner washroom and met her date covered in wet spots. He’d invited her to a Chinese restaurant, and once seated, pulled a long slender box from his inner jacket pocket. How sweet, she thought, he brought me a gift, but he hadn’t. He’d brought his own chopsticks—gold plated—and used them to eat General Tso’s chicken. He was the most obnoxious person she had ever met.

When our waitress brought the check, she said, “You know we’re closing, right?” She looked sad. I asked her what her plans were for after the Edison closes. “I’ll wait for the boss to open a new place,” she said. “I can’t work for anybody else.”

The Café Edison to close Sunday December 21st 2014.


THE LIFE OF JUANITA CASTRO


Last night I walked downtown to see Agosto Machado in The Life of Juanita Castro by Ronald Tavel at the Theater for the New City on 1st Avenue. Gramercy was beautiful and mysterious in Christmas lights and so was Rutherford Place, with its very old church and the Friends Meeting Hall and the lighted trees in the little park. The play was one of the old Theatre of the Ridiculous things, truly ridiculous, and I sat and laughed at Agosto as Juanita Castro, a role for which he’d had to shave his long and silky beard.
Agosto Machado 2014  Photo by Romy Ashby

 Across 1st Avenue from the theater I looked at the darkened windows of De Roberti’s caffé and pastry shop that closed last week after 110 years, and thought of all the many times I sat in it when I lived down in that neighborhood in the ‘80s. It was a lovely place, very old fashioned with its beautiful tiles and mosaic floor; the kind of place people go on trips to Italy to sit in, or at least they used to. De Roberti’s owned the building but people in the neighborhood stopped going in. Instead people crowd the coffee chains in the neighborhood, preferring them it would seem, as hard as it is for me to imagine such a thing possible. I remember going to De Roberti’s on so many nights after something at the St. Marks Poetry Project or the Knitting Factory when it was on East Houston Street. The reason I didn’t keep going regularly is because I moved out of the neighborhood long ago. It used to be that you didn’t necessarily make a trip to another neighborhood to sit in a café there because each neighborhood had its own. And as beautiful as those places always were, they were not yet out of the ordinary. They didn’t feel endangered. I marvel at the way I once assumed that when a place had been on the same spot for fifty or eighty or a hundred years, it would stay forever because it been there for what seemed to me like forever already.

Photo by Romy Ashby, taken in about 2007 or 2008
Agosto reminded me not long ago of the way he and his friends used to go see a movie or a play, or someone reading a few poems in a park or an old cemetery at night, and then afterwards they’d all go sit in a café to talk about what they’d just seen. We both had the feeling that doesn’t happen so much anymore, or if it does, we somehow just don’t know. Does it happen still? I would be happy to think it does, and I remember spending whole afternoons in a café, sometimes with a friend, sometimes by myself. I remember the way it felt, on a day of pouring rain, to take a book and a notebook and a pen and go to an old fashioned café, order a coffee and sit there reading and writing. I wrote lots of poems in the ‘80s, most of them awful and lost, but the feeling of sitting there writing them is something delicious that I can still conjure up, right now. I still remember some of the funny little plays I saw in little basement theaters and how great they were even when they were terrible. They were wonderful because people found props on the street and made their own crazy costumes with fabric from garment district trash bins, and ingenuity reigned with dazzling effect. You didn’t need much money to put on a show, and there was not yet a peril attached to having very little money in certain old neighborhoods of Manhattan, where nobody had any and life was possible anyway. The money was in other neighborhoods, not everywhere, and I enjoyed walking those wealthy streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings on my way to the Metropolitan Museum. And in the museum, wealthy old ladies with hairdos and perfume and impeccable manners would often volunteer at the information desks.

I felt happy after seeing Agosto in lipstick and a tango dress as Juanita Castro. I waited a while afterwards, hoping to congratulate him, but I heard someone say he was backstage getting out of drag. With all the make up and sparkly things he had on, I had the feeling that was going to take forever, so I left.

Outside I saw big posters lying on the street, left over from the huge crowds who came out during the daytime to protest the unfathomable decision of a grand jury to not bring charges against the policeman who killed a perfectly blameless man named Eric Garner in Staten Island. Mr. Garner looked to be a very gentle person who radiated harmlessness it seemed to me when I saw the video of him being choked to death. The notion that selling loose cigarettes is something worth being stopped for by the police is hard enough to understand, and the fact that no attempt was made by the police to revive Mr. Garner after he stopped breathing would have been hard to imagine, but there it was in the video. I stopped into a pizzeria for a soda and while I was there I looked at two big cops at another table. “This time of year cookies are a real problem,” one of them said. “I wish people would stop bringin' ‘em. I don’t wanna, but I eat ‘em anyway.” They both looked friendly, like Sesame Street cops. I thought about asking them what they thought about what happened to Mr. Garner but they got up and left before I could.

I’ve never trusted the police, but once I saw a sweet-seeming young cop helping an old lady.  I followed them, listening to him repeating, “Is this it, Ma’am? Is this where you want to go?” block after block. She kept quiet and held on that much tighter. Sitting in the pizzeria I thought about him too, and if he’s still a cop, I wonder what he thinks.

I followed these two for many blocks in 2009 and took lots of photos, unbeknownst to them. The old lady was apparently lost, but once she had the little copper's hand in hers,  it seemed to me that she didn't want to be found. Photo Romy Ashby





MADAME SUI FONG WONG



On November 23, 2014 Sui Fong Wong passed away at home, a day before her ninetieth birthday. A great star of the Cantonese opera, she came to New York from California in the late 1940s and lived in Chinatown for the rest of her life. By the Western calendar she was born November 24, 1924 in the province of Canton (now Guangzhou). Her father was a doctor and her mother a traditional lady with bound feet. While still a child, she was mentored by a prominent acting teacher and began acting professionally in 1936. Leaving home at thirteen to tour with a theater company, she would eventually lie about her age (adding two years) in order to come to the United States. She made her American operatic debut at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939.

Sui Fong Wong and her daughter Susie Ng in Chinatown (2006)






In San Francisco Madame Wong befriended legendary film director Esther Eng, who lived her life as an elegant man, always wearing a fine suit and red lipstick. She was a central figure in Madame’s colorful storytelling. In 1941, Madame’s friend and fellow performer, Lee Hoi Chuen, allowed his infant son to play the part of a baby girl in Esther Eng’s film Golden Gate Girl. The baby was Bruce Lee, in his first cinematic appearance. Many years later Esther would open several fashionable restaurants in New York including Man Bo, which won Three Stars from Craig Claiborne of the New York Times. Following semi-retirement from the opera, Madame sometimes worked with Esther in her posh restaurant on Fifty-seventh Street, although she continued to make special appearances as a singer for years. She eventually opened restaurants of her own in upstate New York and New Jersey. Between 1943 and 1965, the peak years of her singing career, Madame had seven children; four with her first husband and fellow opera singer Ng Yuen Hai, and three with her second husband, Raymond Wong, an artist and restaurateur. Because she was so often on the road, Madame’s older sister, who lived on Mott Street in Chinatown, played an important and beloved role in helping to raise her children. They called her Yeemah, which means Second Mother.


Madame loved to talk about the opera. She was one of very few highly skilled singers who could play both female roles and male, using a baritone falsetto. She would recount a melodramatic plot with tears rolling from her eyes, reliving a performance from fifty years past with all its tragedy intact. She could magically transform a busy Chinese restaurant into a fluorescent-lit tabloid of delicious vintage operatic scandals, pointing out unremarkable people at other tables and making them suddenly fascinating. “See that old man? He was a famous actor! Crowds would follow him in the street! But then his wife had an affair with another actor and he was never the same!” Or, “You see that lady? She was a singer! You’d never know it now, but she was beautiful! She had an affair with Esther Eng!” When Madame’s daughter Susie described her encountering another old actress in the street and saying, “You were gorgeous! What happened?” I couldn’t help but laugh. Even as an old lady Madame Wong could never be described as sweet, because she wasn’t. But she was utterly charming, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining.


The Opera troupe in the 1940s  Madame is third from left in the first row, Ng Yuen Hai is farthest to the right in row two

Not long ago I went to Madame’s apartment. She lay in bed, surrounded by a little audience of ladies; her old friend Auntie Bic, her protégé and Goddaughter Yim Cheung, her daughter Susie, and a home-health aid. Madame had suffered a little stroke followed by a little heart attack, and they had taken a lot out of her. She looked very ancient and fragile, but miraculously still elegant, and she seemed to be sleeping. I thought of Greta Garbo in Camille. I wondered if she’d seen it. I know she loved the old American movies. She loved Vivian Leigh, Judy Garland, and she had her own special name for Ingrid Bergman: English Bourbon. I watched Susie gently lift her mother and try to coax her to take a drink of water and Madame growled. Yim reported the tongue-lashings Madame had given to a couple of the aids, saying, “She scared one of ‘em so much the lady ran to the kitchen and hid all the knives!” Yim had unearthed a pile of old publicity photos of Madame in her operatic splendor, and while we looked at them she said that when she’d turned on the radio to an opera earlier, Madame quietly began to sing.

Susie and Madame 2000
While I was there the telephone rang. It was Uncle On, an old six-foot tall Chinese opera lover who once lived with his longtime partner, Uncle Larry, in Yeemah’s Mott Street apartment. “It’s Uncle On, Mom,” Susie said, and she held the phone to Madame’s ear. Madame couldn’t speak, but we could hear Uncle On’s voice coming from the receiver. After she hung up the telephone, Susie said that Uncle On called Madame every day. He’d done so forever. Sometimes, she said, he used to get small female roles in the local opera.
“You know what?” Auntie Bic said to Susie. “I used to take you to the Sun Sing Theater as a baby to see the performances.”
“Really?” said Susie. “What did we see?”
“Her,” Auntie Bic said, gesturing towards Madame, who lay with her eyes closed. And it occurred to me then that Madame Wong was probably the most glamorous person I had ever met. I watched as Susie massaged her mother’s hands, and I noticed how pretty they were still, even with unpainted nails.

Madame herself said that in her next life—and in her lives after that—she would be an actress. So somehow, her passing a day before she would have turned ninety felt chosen, on purpose. As if a spiritual stage manager had peeked behind the curtain where she was dressed and ready for her grand exit and said, “Five minutes, Madame,” whereupon Sui Fong Wong decided to just skip over ninety and rush into the drama.




 Wong Sui Fong

24 November 1924 – 23 November 2014




The above photograph of Madame Wong was taken in 1949. Her name is embroidered on the banner behind her, indicating her distinguished position in the opera troupe. She is survived by six of her seven children; Kenny Ng, Calvin Ng, Doris Ng, Susie Ng, Anita Wong and Alan Wong, as well as seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. 



All images posted here are copyright Susie Ng and used with permission. Please send an email if you are interested in Sui Fong Wong. I will gladly forward all messages.  30 November 2014 Text copyright Romy Ashby