On a pretty evening a couple of weeks ago I walked through the West Village with a friend who has lived forever on Perry Street. As we passed an old building grown over with ivy on its West 4th Street side, we heard what sounded like hundreds of sparrows getting ready for bed. My friend said: “Let’s listen,” and we stood under the ivy and did. She told how walking home from work in the evenings lately she often passes this spot and hears that sound and it makes her feel happy every time. It felt good to stand under the ivy and listen to that sweet racket, and after that, as we walked towards my friend’s apartment, we saw a group of young women squealing and photographing each other in front of one of the brownstones on a certain block. Apparently the stoop was used in the TV show Sex and the City and because of that it has become a tourist attraction. My friend said she heard a lady who lives in the building telling someone on the sidewalk one day that having so many tourists posing on her stoop was becoming unpleasant. We saw that she had put out a little collection box for a dog rescue effort, asking people to make a donation for each photo taken.
One of the worst ways that part of the West Village has changed for regular people like my friend who live there is by having disembarrassed itself of its delis and bakeries and laundries, which until a few years ago were all taken for granted like shoes. On a Saturday afternoon not long ago I walked through Bleecker Street with no delis or laundries and saw Marc Jacobs clothing stores, one after another, with long lines of people waiting to get in. I can’t say why exactly, but being there made me feel embarrassment. I imagined myself, if I had a business, having three or four shops on one street with my name on them all and the thought embarrassed me. And then I stopped in front of number 375 Bleecker Street where Marguerite Young used to live. Marguerite was a real Village character I knew for a while because of a friend in common. I can’t say that I liked Marguerite because she intimidated me, but I didn’t dislike her either. Once I sat in on her literature class at the New School and felt intimidated there too. Mostly I saw Marguerite at Tiffany’s restaurant.
I remembered meeting her one day in front of that building on Bleecker Street and helping her load box after box of manuscript pages into a taxi. It was her endless book about the American socialist Eugene Debs, which had taken her decades to write, and we hauled it uptown to Random House. Somehow it fell to me to push the six or seven boxes of pages on a hand truck into the elevator and way up high into the office of a lady editor who looked at all the boxes and said, “My goodness!” Brevity was not Marguerite, and it was around that time that she inscribed for me a copy of her endless novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which is apparently one of the most acclaimed novels that almost nobody has ever read. I haven’t read it either, but every so often I open it at random and see what sort of sentence flies up at me.
On most nights then, in the early ‘90s, you could find Marguerite holding forth in one of the booths at Tiffany’s, which was open all night on the corner of 7th Avenue and Christopher Street in a spot now taken up by a big bright Bank of America, and the whole place was always full of old ladies and drag queens. The waiters wore white shirts with black vests and it was the kind of place where you really could get anything you wanted, or where you could just sit all night with a cup of coffee and a lot of people did.
I used to jot down things she said and put them in my diary. Marguerite said that literature is nothing but gossip and that it is as much what could have happened as what did. She said you have to give Henry James or anyone else at least twenty pages to get used to their particular way of seeing the world, and she said that when she was writing Miss MacIntosh, the head of the writing department at Iowa State said to her, “The time has come to cut the baby’s nipples off.” She said that life is inherently meaningless, and that Bertrand Russell had aptly said it when he wrote about how we all come into the world by accident and go out by accident. She talked about what a wonderful guy Isaac Newton was and how he had a little dog who ate part of the law of gravity and that Isaac Newton said that the dog did God’s work by eating it. She said that reading biographies would make a person a better writer and that her favorites were the biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Leadbelly, Benny Goodman and Ava Gardner. She thought True Detective was a very good magazine, and that when it disappeared somebody somewhere wrote in some publication, “Now what will Marguerite Young and Carson McCullers write about?”
She was eighty-something, and she said that her ideal would to always be forty-four. She said that getting old is the strangest of all experiences, and that looking back on it, a whole life looks like one long, single day. One year, I had Thanksgiving dinner at Tiffany’s with Marguerite and all of the tables were full of Village oddballs.
Thinking of Marguerite today I opened the giant Miss MacIntosh at random, closed my eyes and put down my finger on page 996. The line under my finger read: Could anything be worse than a drunken arithmetic teacher?