Never has the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” felt so apt as it did to me one night not long ago around the corner on 20th Street. As long as I’ve lived in this neighborhood I have taken for granted the storefront palm reading joint over there, and it’s one of those places I hardly noticed from being so used to it. It was old when I first moved up to Chelsea from the Lower East Side. Sometimes I would notice it, because when the light was just right outside, at what they call the magic hour, it seemed to draw out the neon announcing ‘Psychic Readings by Lisa.’ I don’t think I ever did see Lisa, whoever she was, but sometimes through the doors, which were always open except late at night, I’d catch a glimpse of the old gypsy in his bathrobe, passing by the curtain separating the little storefront area from his rooms at the back, to plop down in front of his TV. In nice weather he would come out and sit in a folding chair on the sidewalk to chew the fat with other old guys, and in the early morning sunshine the tchotchkes in the window would glow golden.
But on this particular night, I had to stop and look around to be sure that I really was on 20th Street, because in the place of ‘Psychic Readings by Lisa’ was a new awning in bright orange and a new glass and aluminum storefront complete with a mall-style door. The awning said ‘Gypsy Tearoom,’ and in the Spartan, blemishless new window a few teacups were arranged.
It seemed to have happened overnight. I wondered if the gypsies had decided that in order to follow the zeitgeist of Chelsea as it changes, they had to make it look, well, suburban. It certainly looked much cleaner and brighter than it had before, but to achieve that bright cleanliness it had sacrificed all of its mystery. Now it looked more like a tanning salon. I took a picture of the new awning. A couple of geezers were standing at the garbage cans a few doorways up the block. One was tall and one was short, and both had thin little mustaches. The short one said, “I’ll give ya ten dollars for that camera,” and I said, “What would I do without my old dinosaur of a camera?”
Both of them had lived in Chelsea for fifty-some years and they knew everybody. The short one told me he heard the old gypsy had been taken someplace by his grandson so the grandson could fix the place up. But then the old man didn’t come back. And before the old man, there was the old woman. Her name was Rose, and she was there forever. “You know how it is with gypsies,” he said, “They have the place, they have it for how many years, they pass it to somebody else, they go someplace, who knows?” He shrugged. “The neighborhood’s all rich now,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind them fixing things up if they just left the old places alone.” I said goodnight to them, and the short one said, “You have a nice evening, Mama.”
Earlier that day I met three dogs with a man who lives with them in his truck. They were sitting in front of an old building in the southwest part of the Village, surrounded by new restaurants and little shops full of rich people. The old storefront where the three dogs sat was a little piece of lost time. The dogs were a mother, father and son named Spot, Ginger and Pickles. Pickles was the son. The man told me his name was Jimmy and that he used to work at the newsstand around the corner and up the street. He grew up in the neighborhood when it was still a regular old Italian neighborhood. He told me that the storefront where his dogs were parked used to have a social club in it where his father liked to go now and then. He said that one of the building owners has one arm. He said they won’t sell no matter how many offers they get, even though it sits empty, and they get a lot of offers. The whole building is empty, not just the storefront, but they won’t sell it. Jimmy said he lives in his truck with the three dogs and a 16-year-old kitty named Samantha, and he parks it over on Clarkson Street. I asked him if I could take some pictures of Spot, Ginger and Pickles and he said I could. He said if I ever came around and didn’t see him, to ask in the cheese shop on the next street over because they usually knew where he was hanging out. I liked the thought of the one armed owner not wanting to sell. I imagined it might give him a little bit of satisfaction to know that his old place just sits there, run down and full of all the vapors of the past, while a certain type of person salivates over it. I walked away imagining him shouting, “Not interested!” and banging down a heavy old telephone receiver, a picture at once amusing and comforting.
Walking home as dusk fell, I passed the little building on 6th Avenue that houses the Ansonia Pharmacy. I could see into the apartment upstairs, in its amber lamplight. I could see the bookcases full of books haphazardly piled, pictures on the walls and plants in the old-fashioned paned windows, and I felt a pang. How strange it is living in a time of such rapid and relentless change. I stood in the dusk, looking across 6th Avenue at those windows and said, “Oh, New York, in this moment, you look just the same as ever.” It was the first time in all the years I’ve lived in it that I actually spoke to the city.
June 5th, 2007 (Re-posted on April 11th, 2013)
Copyright Romy Ashby