Yesterday I had an errand uptown on Lexington Avenue, past 125th Street. It’s not often I find myself way up there and it had been a while since the last time, so the changes I saw were very noticeable, mostly in the form of dull new buildings and chain stores. The sight of certain old things, still going at least for now, made me feel both happy and sad at once. I decided to walk downtown a ways rather than get right back into the train, and I went over to 3rd Avenue, where at 120th Street I stopped to look at the Lore Decorators store. The hand-painted sign above the front windows let me know that it’s an old family business of upholstery, drapes, slipcovers and furniture restoration, and I liked the way it all looked. As I passed the beauty salon next door, I saw through the window a barber at work on a little boy who looked like he wished he were someplace else. I crossed the street and took a few pictures of the block and its pair of old buildings. Two men came along then, looking to be in their forties, and one of them said: “Excuse me, Miss, can I ask you a question? People are wondering why you’re taking pictures.” They were a little grim in a way I recognized, and I told them about my pastime of photographing things I find nice to look at—regular things I used to take for granted—since so much of the old city is vanishing.
Whenever I walk through a neighborhood that has always been a poor one and take pictures, I usually end up scaring someone. I always talk to them when that happens, as intimidating as doing so can be, and talking to them always makes things right again. This time was no different. “See? I told you,” the first man said to the other. “She wasn’t doing nothing bad.” We stood and talked about how lovely many of the old buildings are, and how good it is to see old businesses still flourishing when they do, and how sad it is to witness the way things are going all across the city. “They’re ruining this neighborhood,” the first man said. “You should see the Lower East Side,” said the other. Another man, who seemed to have stopped to see what we were all talking about, said: “I used to live on the Lower East Side in a squat.” He was around the same age as the rest of us, neither young nor old, and he wore a pair of glasses with thick lenses. The first two men went back across the street and the one in glasses told me that the squat he’d lived in had been around the corner from one called C-Squat. He told me how he had gone to college while living in the squat and gotten a degree of some kind but then he had fallen into drug use. Now all these years later he still had to come uptown every day to the methadone clinic. He said he had been feeling a little depressed about that lately. “Here I am with a degree, living like this,” he said.
I walked down to 116th Street and back over to Lexington Avenue again. Along the way I looked into a bakery window full of big, ornate cakes and at the old Casa Latina music store across the street. A flock of pigeons made an elegant fall over the rooftops at the corner with the silver sky behind them, and the way the buildings all came together there looked very pretty.
I took the slow route downtown, making big circles around the blocks and following whatever looked best at each corner I came to. On 2nd Avenue somewhere below 117th Street a little carnival was going with a tiny lighted Ferris wheel. I could hear preaching from a loudspeaker somewhere, and the word ‘Dios’ echoed up and down the avenue between the buildings. I followed the direction the voice seemed to come from until I came to what looked like a closet between two closed up shops, with its door open. Inside, a man stood behind a podium earnestly giving a sermon into a microphone. On the sidewalk in front of him, a very ancient lady dressed all in black handed out little brochures to everyone passing, including me. She looked like the sweetest old lady who had ever lived, and the title of her brochure was LA ETERNIDAD. I put it in my pocket.
On the elevated track in the distance a silver train hurtled towards Poughkeepsie and I stopped to look at an old Buick LeSabre parked in front of a crumbling building. I took a picture of it and walking on, I came to a sorry-looking corner grocery. Outside a little boy of about seven was standing very solemnly, not right in front of the door but around the corner at the side. Suddenly a big lady came bombing out of the store and lit into him. “Just because you didn’t get what you wanted, you going to stand outside while ALL OF US GOES IN?” she shouted. I saw his eyes get very big and round. “What’s WRONG with you?” She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the store. I passed a ball court in the projects where a plump lady of about fifty was playing with a plump little boy. Each time he threw the ball she clapped her hands together and said, “Damn!”
Finally, my feet started to hurt and I went into the subway. On the platform I opened the brochure the old lady had given me and read: “El cielo para los salvos y el infierno para los perdidos.“ I felt happy that I could understand that sentence and much of the rest too, in spite of my lousy Spanish. And when the train came it felt good to sit down.
28 March 2013