Ira Cohen at his apartment on Duke Ellington Boulevard in 2006
At the flea market today I looked at an old diorama from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The man selling it told me he got it at a sale the museum had when they cleaned out their storage rooms. It was a black-painted wooden box with a glass front, and when I  looked at it the interior was dark but I could see that there were little Indians in there. When the man lifted the lid the scene inside the box filled with daylight: three carved wooden Indians with Mohawks  busy carving canoes out of tree logs. The man said that an Indian told him actual Indians never carved their canoes that way, so whoever made the thing had gotten their technology wrong, but at least it was a nice example of WPA craftsmanship.

I looked at a big collection of corkscrews, made of iron or silver, with all varieties of wooden and bone handles. Each handle was ornately engraved with the name of whatever cocktail lounge it had come from. I watched an old geezer scribbling into a little notebook while examining every single drill bit and bolt on a table covered with them. A lady waved to me and I recognized her from 7th Avenue, a lady who every now and then stops me to ask if I’ve gotten another dog yet.

A long time ago I used to buy things at the flea markets once in a while, things that I didn’t need but couldn’t resist. One of those things was the Renulife quack medical device from the 1920s that has been sitting in my closet forever. It looks like a little black suitcase, inside of which is a panel of polished wood with a Bakelite dial and a velvet-lined lid full of glass implements. The glass implements, in all different shapes, get inserted into a Bakelite wand, and once plugged in, turning the dial will send a little lightning bolt of ultraviolet light through the glass implement, which gives little shocks and makes me think of Frankenstein.

When I bought it for about $80.00 however long ago that was, it seemed like a lot of money and it still does. I wouldn’t buy something like that now, but whenever I consider parting with it I stop myself, thinking the second I don’t have it anymore is when “they” will find out that those quack devices aren’t crackpot things at all, and that they really do cure everything, and suddenly they will cost more than I could imagine or become illegal.

After the flea market, I came home and went looking in the closet to see what else was in there with the quack device. I pulled out my old concertina, which also came from a long ago flea market. I never play it because I never learned how, but I did take a lesson once from a locksmith out in Jamaica Queens who repaired concertinas and gave lessons in the back of his locksmith shop. An accordion player I met told me about this man, who I found in the New York City Yellow Pages under “Locksmith.”

 I remember riding out to Jamaica on the train. The stop was an elevated station from where I could look down and see the locksmith shop. Inside it was like any other locksmith shop, a cramped jumble of keys and machines, and there was the man behind his counter. He was an older guy, he might have been Greek, and he took my concertina and played it a little. Then he gave me a lesson in a tiny little room full of concertina parts at the back of the shop, and he wouldn’t take any money for it.

I pulled a few other things out of the closet, and while I was in there I came across a cassette tape labeled, “Ira 2006,” and I sat down to listen to it. There was Ira Cohen, talking to someone on the telephone the way he often did when I visited him at his apartment up there on Duke Ellington Boulevard. “Well, I tried to hang out with Kenneth Anger a little bit because I’m always a bit pretentious and I wanted to take some photographs of him,” he was saying. “So I got him up on a statue of a horse, backwards, so that he was facing over the ass of the horse, you know, and one or two amusing things like that. I’m actually quite weirdly delighted to know that we both have the same birthday, February three, and I like being coupled with him for the sake of—what’s his most famous movie? Pleasure Dome? That’s a very psychedelic movie.”

He listened for a moment and then he said,  “Well, Romy came to visit and I’m trying to amuse her but it’s hard to get her to laugh out loud at a joke. Although she told me a really good joke. Did you know they found out that George Washington lied? Did you know that? Hello? Yeah, you know how his father asked him, ‘Did you chop down the cherry tree?’ And then George said, ‘Pop, I did it?’ Well he didn’t actually say, ‘Pop, I did it.’ What he really said was, ‘Popeye did it.’ See? So he lied.  Now she’s laughing. No, I didn’t think it was very funny. But Romy thought it was a witty way to try to get the attention in my kitchen, which is very hard to do.”  He listened for a minute and then said, “Well, I hope you feel better. What? No, you don’t have to find a festive mood! All you need is two clothespins! And then you just pinch up your smile with the clothespins! “

Ira used to tell me I should always bring my tape machine and record him talking, no matter what he was saying. I wish I had, but most of my visits weren’t planned. I’d just be in the neighborhood, so I’d drop in.

29 July 2012

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