Last night I walked downtown to see Agosto Machado in The Life of Juanita Castro by Ronald Tavel at the Theater for the New City on 1st Avenue. Gramercy was beautiful and mysterious in Christmas lights and so was Rutherford Place, with its very old church and the Friends Meeting Hall and the lighted trees in the little park. The play was one of the old Theatre of the Ridiculous things, truly ridiculous, and I sat and laughed at Agosto as Juanita Castro, a role for which he’d had to shave his long and silky beard.
Agosto Machado 2014  Photo by Romy Ashby

 Across 1st Avenue from the theater I looked at the darkened windows of De Roberti’s caffé and pastry shop that closed last week after 110 years, and thought of all the many times I sat in it when I lived down in that neighborhood in the ‘80s. It was a lovely place, very old fashioned with its beautiful tiles and mosaic floor; the kind of place people go on trips to Italy to sit in, or at least they used to. De Roberti’s owned the building but people in the neighborhood stopped going in. Instead people crowd the coffee chains in the neighborhood, preferring them it would seem, as hard as it is for me to imagine such a thing possible. I remember going to De Roberti’s on so many nights after something at the St. Marks Poetry Project or the Knitting Factory when it was on East Houston Street. The reason I didn’t keep going regularly is because I moved out of the neighborhood long ago. It used to be that you didn’t necessarily make a trip to another neighborhood to sit in a café there because each neighborhood had its own. And as beautiful as those places always were, they were not yet out of the ordinary. They didn’t feel endangered. I marvel at the way I once assumed that when a place had been on the same spot for fifty or eighty or a hundred years, it would stay forever because it been there for what seemed to me like forever already.

Photo by Romy Ashby, taken in about 2007 or 2008
Agosto reminded me not long ago of the way he and his friends used to go see a movie or a play, or someone reading a few poems in a park or an old cemetery at night, and then afterwards they’d all go sit in a café to talk about what they’d just seen. We both had the feeling that doesn’t happen so much anymore, or if it does, we somehow just don’t know. Does it happen still? I would be happy to think it does, and I remember spending whole afternoons in a café, sometimes with a friend, sometimes by myself. I remember the way it felt, on a day of pouring rain, to take a book and a notebook and a pen and go to an old fashioned café, order a coffee and sit there reading and writing. I wrote lots of poems in the ‘80s, most of them awful and lost, but the feeling of sitting there writing them is something delicious that I can still conjure up, right now. I still remember some of the funny little plays I saw in little basement theaters and how great they were even when they were terrible. They were wonderful because people found props on the street and made their own crazy costumes with fabric from garment district trash bins, and ingenuity reigned with dazzling effect. You didn’t need much money to put on a show, and there was not yet a peril attached to having very little money in certain old neighborhoods of Manhattan, where nobody had any and life was possible anyway. The money was in other neighborhoods, not everywhere, and I enjoyed walking those wealthy streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings on my way to the Metropolitan Museum. And in the museum, wealthy old ladies with hairdos and perfume and impeccable manners would often volunteer at the information desks.

I felt happy after seeing Agosto in lipstick and a tango dress as Juanita Castro. I waited a while afterwards, hoping to congratulate him, but I heard someone say he was backstage getting out of drag. With all the make up and sparkly things he had on, I had the feeling that was going to take forever, so I left.

Outside I saw big posters lying on the street, left over from the huge crowds who came out during the daytime to protest the unfathomable decision of a grand jury to not bring charges against the policeman who killed a perfectly blameless man named Eric Garner in Staten Island. Mr. Garner looked to be a very gentle person who radiated harmlessness it seemed to me when I saw the video of him being choked to death. The notion that selling loose cigarettes is something worth being stopped for by the police is hard enough to understand, and the fact that no attempt was made by the police to revive Mr. Garner after he stopped breathing would have been hard to imagine, but there it was in the video. I stopped into a pizzeria for a soda and while I was there I looked at two big cops at another table. “This time of year cookies are a real problem,” one of them said. “I wish people would stop bringin' ‘em. I don’t wanna, but I eat ‘em anyway.” They both looked friendly, like Sesame Street cops. I thought about asking them what they thought about what happened to Mr. Garner but they got up and left before I could.

I’ve never trusted the police, but once I saw a sweet-seeming young cop helping an old lady.  I followed them, listening to him repeating, “Is this it, Ma’am? Is this where you want to go?” block after block. She kept quiet and held on that much tighter. Sitting in the pizzeria I thought about him too, and if he’s still a cop, I wonder what he thinks.

I followed these two for many blocks in 2009 and took lots of photos, unbeknownst to them. The old lady was apparently lost, but once she had the little copper's hand in hers,  it seemed to me that she didn't want to be found. Photo Romy Ashby

1 comment:

  1. Romy,
    this is beautiful, gentle and heart rendering, forgotten moments.
    Thank you.