Every other day during the last week I have found myself at Skyline Books on 18th Street, where everything is fifty percent off. Once upon a time I would have been thrilled to see a sign announcing a fifty percent discount in that wonderful place, but this time I’m not. I browse among the shelves full of books with prices written in the familiar hand of Rob Warren-the-owner, I pet Linda-the-store-kitty, and everything blurs in tears. Because Skyline Books is the last secondhand bookstore in the neighborhood, always my favorite, and soon it too will close, lease lost.
For a long time there was no better way to spend a rainy afternoon than poking around the many secondhand bookstores of Chelsea. So often I came home with something I hadn’t imagined until the moment I found it on one of those shelves. Every time I’ve gone to Skyline Books this past week I have bought something; a collection of letters written by Tennessee Williams, a hardcover book in Italian called Intervista con la Storia full of pictures of Oriana Fallaci, and yesterday I bought a little book by Jack Smith called Historical Treasures, edited by my friend Ira Cohen. Out on the street with the book in my hands, I opened it and read a paragraph at random:
“I’m being haunted now by a performance in a movie. It was in Dark Passage. Agnes Moorehead plays this pest, and fills out the character in detail. In a huge close-up you see the twitch of her little purse of a mouth.”
I walked home imagining Ira choosing what to put into that little book, published after Jack Smith had already died, and pictured him smiling at “her little purse of a mouth.” And it occurred to me that browsing in Skyline Books was always a pleasure not unlike that of listening to the stream-of-consciousness blabbing that Ira was always so good at. It made some of his friends complain that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but listening to him on a good day always made me feel as if I’d been given an injection of a hallucinatory genius better than any drug. Walking away from Skyline yesterday, I felt the weight of the countless times I had stopped in just to look, all the times I got excited when someone from the shop called to tell me they’d found a copy of something I wanted, and suddenly all those books and all the words of Ira’s stories appeared to stretch out before me like lights strung in the dusk as I walked home with Jack Smith’s little book in my pocket, discounted 50 percent.
I thought of all sorts of things Ira has told me over the years; about going to Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd Street and watching real fleas pulling little chariots, and how once Paul Bowles showed him two embalmed Mexican fleas in little boxes that he had in Tangier, dressed in tiny, colorful and authentic handmade costumes. On another visit to Tangier a few years later, Ira asked to see the fleas again, but when Paul went to get them the little female flea had disappeared, box and all. Later still, the male went missing too. Someone suggested that Mohammed Mrabet might have swiped Paul’s fleas because he had it in him to be a little shifty, but who could say? Ira said that Paul told a story about sticking a pin through a spider to keep it as a specimen and in the night the spider got up and left, pin and all.
He told me about a dream he had where Socrates and a bunch of friends were sitting on a beach somewhere, wearing no underwear beneath their cloaks, and leaving the imprint of their twig and berries in the sand by which they could be measured.
One day when I visited Ira in the Jewish Home on 106th Street after he had a little stroke, a nurse had just given him a little bottle of personal hygiene spray. Ira told me that it had directions on the label for how to keep one’s perineum clean. I had never heard the word “perineum” but Ira was all over it like a rash. He spoke of a famous Indian named Sri Orobindo, and how the hair of his perineum apparently smelled like sandalwood paste and if one could get some of it and plant it under the right conditions, one just never knew what might grow out of it. He said that because of his diabetes when he makes love now all the blood rushes to his head and his nose gets hard.
He told me a story about a scam that Gregory Corso and Roger Richards apparently hatched at some point where they forged TS Eliot’s name in a book and sold it for money to cop dope with. Ira said that at Roger’s memorial he made a joke about that where Roger and Gregory were up there in heaven and God said, “OK, I know what you guys were up to with the TS Eliot book, and I want some of the money.”
And he told me about his old friend Irving Rosenthal, the author of a very good book called Sheeper, and how he had an extra tooth growing out of the roof of his mouth. He said that once when Irving took an overdose of pills he tried to get him to throw up by sticking his hand down Irving's throat, “past that mean little tooth.”
When I got home yesterday evening, I found my copy of Sheeper with a photograph of Irving Rosenthal taken by Jack Smith on the cover and the price, $20, written in Rob Warren’s hand. I remember buying it one rainy summer day many years ago, and I remember Ira telling me that if it rained when I got to the beach, I should think of a big golden banana and associate it with him.
31 December 2009