Not long ago I wrote about two painters I watched making a big white rectangle on the side of the building on 25th Street where an old sewing machine ad used to be. A day or so later, passing the same spot, I looked up and saw that the new ad was already completely finished and there stood a giant bottle of Stella Artois Cidre and three nice apples. The painters had done a good job. It was early evening and still hot, and looking at the ad made me feel as though a bottle of ice-cold cider would be the most delicious thing in the world. Then I noticed something the painters had done that struck me as very classy. The sewing machine that had been on that spot for so long, like the faded ad for Griffon Shears on 19th Street and 7th Avenue, were both done by the Mack sign painting company, with its company signature in capital letters at the bottom of each. Looking at the big bottle of cider, I saw that the present-day painters had not only left the old MACK signature where it was, but they had painted their own signature, Colossal, respectfully beneath it.
I was on my way to the Morgan Library, where on Friday evenings between six and eight PM, anyone can go in free of charge, and I decided to go through 28th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues on the chance that I might see the big orange tomcat who lives there in the Holiday Florist shop. He doesn’t lord it over the sidewalk as much as he once did because he’s now seventeen years old, but every so often he’ll still emerge and I luck out and get to pet him. He’s a rough-looking cat and I know that dogs fear him because I’ve seen it, but he’s always very sweet to me and apparently to everyone else too. This I know because one evening as I petted his greasy fur and he purred, one of the men working in the shop told me a little grimly that other women—one in particular—came around looking for him and that he behaved the same way with them too. This time there was no sign of him but as I passed his shop the man standing in the doorway gestured with his thumb when I asked, and said: “Sleeping.”
At Broadway and 29th Street I had to stop and admire the beautiful old Gilsey Hotel building and its clock in the early evening light. Somewhere I read that the Gilsey Hotel was the first in New York to have telephones in its rooms and that Oscar Wilde once stayed there. Looking up from that spot on the street, the tops of the buildings were all so grand that I had to stand and look for a few minutes. Then I went across 30th Street towards Madison Avenue, and on the way I saw a pretty old building of nine or ten stories being gutted. At its door were many individual buzzers, and thinking of the lost apartments that went with those buzzers made me wonder about all the people who had lived in them and I felt sorry. I looked at many more pretty buildings as I walked, I looked at a couple of nice old shoe repair shops and at a second-story dentist’s office on Madison Avenue where one day I looked up and saw the dentist himself, with his glasses on his forehead and a worried-looking patient on the chair. And looking at all of it, I thought that even with all the losses, New York as a city still counts as Magnificent.
In the Morgan Library I ran into a friend and together we looked at the marvelous books in Mr. Morgan’s collection. We read a hand-written letter on display in a case, written to Mr. Morgan by his head librarian expressing her huge worry over his health problems and her monumental relief upon hearing that he was okay after all, when in fact he was not okay and she would never see him again. We looked at all the old drawings in the new acquisitions exhibit, and in the big open center hall, two cellists were giving a concert for a lot of people sitting at tables having wine and listening. As we passed the little service area I saw a waiter polishing glasses.
My friend walked west with me and on 30th Street she looked at the building being gutted and said, “Look, there’s someone still living up at the top.” And indeed, there was one lighted pair of windows, an air conditioner in one and knickknacks visible against the glass of the other. On 7th Avenue, when she saw the big Stella Artois ad and the Mack signature above the new one, she too found it an elegant gesture. She said she thought the old sewing machine ad had been a real sweetie. And when I wondered aloud if anyone still uses old sewing machines like that, she said, “I do.” She told me that hers is a hand-crank machine called a Flora that once belonged to her great-great Aunt Annie, and that she uses it all the time.
Once home I looked up the Mack painting company and learned that both the Griffon Shears ad and the Necchi sewing machine ad were painted by a man named Harry Middleton, who bought the company in 1930 for $75. His son Bob carried the torch, and I read his descriptions of how the ads were made. Then I looked up the Colossal painters and read about how they use the same traditional methods and techniques of the old-time painters, who are called Wall Dogs. The Colossal painters are trained by experienced Wall Dogs, but theyalso come with a natural ability. Because what’s really needed to paint a giant, real-looking sewing machine or bottle of cider by hand is an eye for it.
August 13, 2013
Copyright Romy Ashby