On my way down Seventh Avenue from 28th Street yesterday I felt a raindrop. When I looked up the sky was silver and I noticed, on the side of the handsome old building where an advertisement for Necchi sewing machines used to be, two painters hanging on a scaffold. They were painting a big white rectangle to prepare for whatever ad they’ll put there. One of the painters looked to be a lady, and I saw that she had just felt a raindrop too. She had her paint-roller held aloft in one hand, and I watched her look up at the sky and then over at the other painter. On the scaffold I could read the words, “Always by Hand.” An ornate Necchi sewing machine on a wooden table had been fading there in the old ad for a very long time, and a couple of years ago when I realized it had vanished, I felt suddenly unsure of where I was. I thought of how once lots of people used to find those wooden sewing tables put out for the trash, their machines gone obsolete, and use them as bedside tables.
A couple of weeks ago I went into the Ottendorfer Library on Second Avenue, a little branch I’ve always loved for its cast iron mezzanine up a little flight of iron steps. The last time I’d been there was with a friend who went up to the mezzanine, from where she could see down into the open restroom. “The toilet looks so innocent and funny and so does the little sink,” she said when she came down. She brought down a book of essays by John Waters and checked it out. This time when I went in I was by myself and the mezzanine had been emptied of books and closed off. There was a time when I wouldn’t have worried, but now things are different. The Ottendorfer was the city’s first free public library, opened in 1884, and it is landmarked. But with the trouble around the whole library system, with librarians ordered to “weed” books having the slightest blemish, with all branches becoming emptier and emptier and with the plan I was told the library has to be “paper-free” within a few years, I worry very much.
At the sight of the unused zip tubes in the catalog room of the 42nd Street library some days ago, the scary plight of the post office came to mind. I had read about the marvelous pneumatic tube system the post office used here once, as wondrous as the one in Paris, in E.B. White’s book of essays called Here is New York. Between 1897 and 1953, miles of pneumatic tubes connected twenty-two city post offices, and canisters zoomed from one to another at 35 miles per hour. They carried 95,000 letters a day, and once, a kitty. He came out a little queasy but okay. I remember a scene in Francois Truffaut’s movie Stolen Kisses showing a letter being sent through the Parisian pneumatic post and how magic and mysterious it looked. It’s obsolete in Paris now too, and I can’t help but worry about the post office in general.
A while ago I went to see a play being put on in the upstairs floors of the big Farley post office on 8th Avenue; the one with the solemn promise of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” chiseled across its great façade. The play was an epic about the 400-year history of New York, and while it should have been fun to go up into the old offices above the great hall, it made me feel blue to see them all empty. And on the floor above that, the actors made use of the vast, empty sorting gallery while dusty evening sunlight came in through windows that looked as though they hadn’t been washed in fifty years. The theater program let the audience know that the old Farley post office will one day soon be the new Penn Station. And I left filled with dread. I have no trust that the changes planned for the old post office will be respectful of its grace, and I walked home feeling the strange missing of things that are still here but on the edge of an abyss.
Some of the changes in the city are small ones, but they can be so incomprehensible when I encounter them suddenly that I feel the way I do when I stand up too fast. Such as with a little shop on the Lower East Side I happened upon with my friend Carole Ramer one day, selling nothing but what they called artisanal popcorn. I looked in and saw the popcorn, and I didn’t know what to do. That used to be the bargain district, and most of the underwear shops have disappeared! Carole told me, that afternoon, about a man she used to know down there, from whom she bought her very excellent goosedown quilt. His name was Izzy Izkowitz, and she said he was a funny little guy who was absolutely covered in feathers, even in his nose and ears. Somehow, hearing Carole tell about Izzy Izkowitz and his Russian assistant who would stuff in extra feathers for a bottle of vodka made me feel a little less lost.
When I noticed the scaffold yesterday I still missed the sewing machine, but watching the lady painter feel the raindrops up there, where she was hanging the way whoever painted the sewing machine must have done once, I felt more gladness than dread. I went home to get my camera. When the rain stopped it was late afternoon and the light was very beautiful. I went back up to 25th Street but the painters had parked their scaffold up near the roof and disappeared, leaving their big white square an empty canvas for another day.
July 24, 2013
Copyright Romy Ashby