On Seventh Avenue the other day my bookseller friend waved me down with two little books from the City Lights Pocket Poets series. He’d had them set aside. He figured I’d pass by eventually, he said. One was Golden Sardine by Bob Kaufman, who I love, and the other Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He let me have both for not a lot of money and I felt happy, as much because he’d thought of me as for the books themselves. As I walked downtown I thought of a cold day long ago when I stopped to look at some old books, on his table on that same corner, and bought one for my dad. I’ve forgotten exactly what the book was now, it might have been Herman Melville or maybe Joseph Conrad, both of whom my dad loved, but it was old and fragile and I had just enough money to buy it. As I walked away, the bookseller came hurrying after me with another old book, its pages edged with gold, and said that I had to have it; the two really went together, he said, and he gave it to me. It was held together with a piece of twine. I sent the two books together to my dad for Christmas, with a note telling him the story. He loved the story as much as the books. My dad was an eccentric with no money, but he kept his own little collection of books in his room full of cigarette smoke, books he’d had since the ‘40s, and he referred to them as ‘My library.’
To this day I love the bookseller, with his beard and his coat, the way he can talk about books and the backstories of their authors, and sometimes he’ll tell a good story of how he came to have a particular book. In another place or time he might have had a fine shop, and in my neighborhood, as rich as it has become, his table out on the corner is in fact the finest—and only—bookshop there is.
I thought of another old guy who used to come out onto 7th Avenue, laden with bags, and spread a cloth over the sidewalk. The bags were full of seashells and old bottles—sometimes just pieces of old bottles—and he would spend a few hours arranging them on the cloth. They looked beautiful. He didn’t sell anything, it was just the arrangement he was after and how magnificent it looked. The bottles were all clear or whitish glass, but in certain light, colors would appear in them like magic, and the shells were all different kinds and shapes. How lovely a striped seashell looked beside an old medicine bottle! It seems to me he was always there on silver days but without rain, and thinking of him, with his big nose and gray hair sticking out of his cap, laying each bottle and shell onto his cloth, I remembered these lines from “The Chambered Nautilus,” about a seashell and the creature that built it:
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul…
Let each new temple, nobler than the last
Shut thee from Heaven with a dome more vast
And I felt sure that if I were to recite them to my bookseller, he would know they were by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
I was on my way to the B & H Dairy on 2nd Avenue, located on the half of the block between 7th Street and St. Marks that survived the gas explosion last week. The big empty square full of bricks on the other half, where four beautiful old buildings stood for more than a century, and the blasted out windows around it, reminded me of the way so much of the far East Village used to look—like London after the Blitz—when I lived there in the ‘80s. Block after block of ruins, deliberately burned by landlords who wanted the insurance money.
And I thought too about all of the more recent, deliberate, ‘legal’ destruction; the knocking down of perfectly good old buildings of a particular size, to make way for bigger, boring, glass ‘luxury’ buildings that always rise in their places. I remember standing in 2005 on the corner of 8th Avenue and 18th Street, where two pretty and well-kept buildings were being demolished. A man next to me said, “I don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with those buildings. Why are they tearing them down?” He said aloud what I was thinking, and I went home and got my camera.
Two cops were standing outside the B & H when I got there, but it wasn’t open, they told me. The manager was standing outside, though, and he was sweet. “We don’t have gas yet so we can’t cook anything,” he told me. “All we can do right now is clean,” he said, and he smiled. “I hope next week.” It is truly pure luck that finds B & H and Gem Spa—that half of the block—still there. And with the way things are going in the city, everything small and utilitarian has a cowering, precarious feel about it.
Is it worse, I wondered as I looked at 2nd Avenue, when buildings are leveled by something ‘accidental?’ To me it seems worse when it’s done on purpose, maybe even especially when it’s ‘legal.’ Somebody always gets pushed out. When a rich family bought a tenement on East 3rd Street and forced out the tenants to have the entire building for themselves, it was astonishing. With their money they could have bought a place in any wealthy neighborhood. Why displace working-class people from their homes?
Since that day ten years ago when I wondered at the little buildings being demolished I’ve taken thousands of pictures, and so many are already Pictures of the Gone World, just like Ferlinghetti’s book. Sometimes it feels as if the whole city is built on cracking ice.
April 4, 2015
copyright Romy Ashby