A few nights ago walking past Union Square on my way home I saw a big lug of a man sitting in a doorway holding a bag of frozen peas to his face. He looked to be about fifty, but the old kind of fifty. He looked like an old man who had been in a lot of rough places. His hair stuck out every which way, his coat was ratty; he had a big nose on his face and a big, grim-looking mouth. I saw him get up and lurch over to a delivery truck parked at the curb, take away the bag of peas and stand looking into the side-mirror. He looked as if he had walked out of a photograph from1970, with a punch in the eye from 1970. The bag of frozen peas made me think suddenly of my old friend Charlie, who would be past fifty himself now if he hadn’t died at 33. Charlie liked to use a bag of frozen peas for a headache. For a black eye he thought raw steak was good.
For a few years Charlie and I worked a coffee wagon together way downtown on Broad Street not far from the Exchange, and he was full of folk remedies and superstitions. He was forever crossing himself and knocking on wood and he wore a big gold crucifix around his neck. He grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, and all his male relatives looked like mafia. The women were tough as nails, too. He liked to tell a story about his mother, when she was a young woman, going out to Coney Island and getting stung by a dwarf with a shock wand. The dwarf would go around with an electrified wand and shock women as high up their skirts as he could get and they’d scream, but when he did it to Charlie’s mother, forget it. She turned around and punched the dwarf off his feet right there on the boardwalk in front of the whole damn carnival.
When I knew him, Charlie lived in Brooklyn on Church Avenue in a basement apartment with ten locks on the door. He liked to have people over for dinner and cook lasagna. I remember meeting his cousin Angela at one of those dinners, a very pretty, ebullient lady who was a New York City transit cop. She lived on Staten Island and had a very heavy accent. She never went anywhere without wearing her gun in its holster under her coat. At the dinner she made us all laugh by telling about the very first date she ever had with her husband, who was also a transit cop. He took her to Randazzo’s Clam Bar in Sheepshead Bay and she ordered the biggest plate of scungilli. Along with being nervous as hell, the scungilli gave her the worst case of gas she ever had. Sitting in his car by the water after dinner, it was all she could do to keep from breaking wind. “He was sayin’ all these romantic things, and I couldn’t even pay attention, I hadda concentrate, just to not let it out, right? Then he kissed me, and forget about it, it was like a tuba!”
Angela and her husband were trying to get pregnant without any luck, so she had decided to try a potion. She had passed by a shop that sold potions on East 9th Street in the East Village one day, but she felt nervous going in by herself. At the time I lived in that neighborhood, on East 11th Street between B and C, and she asked me if I’d go with her. I knew the place; it was a long, narrow old-fashioned shop called Enchantments. They had a big striped cat who wore a silver pentagram hanging from his collar and once in a while I used to go in and pet him and enjoy the particular atmosphere the place had.
I agreed to keep Angela company and I remember meeting her on the corner of 1st Avenue and 9th Street. She was wearing a mini skirt and stilettos, a leather jacket and her big Staten Island frosted hair. She said, “I’m SO happy you’re goin’ wit me, and can I just tell you? I know it’s gonna work. I just know it is.”
At the back of the shop was an alcove full of tinctures and a warlock. He was a young guy with a long beard and a lot of rings in his ears, and after Angela told him what her problem was, he prepared a potion in a medicine bottle, explaining the specific purpose of each tincture he added as it went in. Angela listened with a great show of respect. He gave her a little bag of salts and told her to put some into her bath each night and soak in it. I remember going up to the counter at the front so Angela could pay the cashier, a girl dressed in what looked like a Victorian mourning costume. Angela opened her coat to get at her billfold and her gun swung out. She set the potion on the counter, held up the bag of salts and said, “I just got one question about this, Hon. When I put this in the bath, is it gonna burn my vagina?”
I don’t remember what the clerk answered or what followed, but I do remember Charlie telling me later that the potion must have worked because Angela was finally pregnant. As far as I know, Enchantments still exists down on 9th Street, and by now, Angela’s baby would be all grown up.
Walking home I thought of another old mystical shop called the Magickal Childe on 19th Street. I remember the pressed-tin black ceiling, and buying a book of poems by Ira Cohen, Gerard Malanga and Angus MacLise from an intimidating old beard behind the counter. Somehow going into shops like that always felt like little adventures.
February 26th 2012 Please follow me on Facebook.