It’s 2018, folks, and it’s time for an update. I haven’t published anything on this blog in almost two years. Frankly, it’s just too much work at times, and there are always more important things on my to-do list, like cobbling together poetry manuscripts, writing new poems, raising a family and – yes – work.
My intention is to use this space to track new writing as it is published. Last week, Poets Reading the News ran a poem of mine about the Strand Bookstore which was written on the occasion of the death of its owner, Fred Bass. The Strand was my alma mater, in a way. There is a lot to say about that time and place, about New York City in the mid-1990s. There is probably a novel in there somewhere down the line. But let’s let poetry do its work. Suffice to say it took 20 years to write this.
The King Is Dead
Employees stocked the fridge with beer, pocket
bottles of Smirnoff tucked
behind stacks for easy nipping. Lunch-
breaks were drinking contests, pounding
pints to dull ourselves before re-entry,
turbulent and dazed. After our shifts
we’d hit the bars along the Bowery
fueled on Chinese takeaway and pizza
by-the-slice. We were ‘bodies’
in their jargon, useful mannequins
for schlepping boxes full of books –
ten floors of them and counting.
The intricate small man sat at the desk
glasses clasping the bridge of his nose
bald pate shining like a headlamp.
“I need a body,” he would say. Someone
would pick up a phone, request
a body, one would be sent up
from the nether world. We were paid
minimum wage to build labyrinths
of boxes made of books made
of paper, miles of it, enough to pave
Broadway with a pelt of snow. Walls
went up between us, block after block after block,
a city within a city. Like Theseus,
I wandered through them endlessly in search
of my Minotaur. The king is dead.
I’m reminded, now more than ever, of something Arthur Miller (yes, that Arthur Miller) told me as we sat together in his kitchen on 68th St. in Manhattan. “One day in the future” — this was around 1999 or 2000 — “someone will have an idea of genius. They’ll decide to put books in a store and allow people to come in and browse them. It’ll be called a ‘bookstore.'”
You’re probably asking yourself what I was doing in Arthur Miller’s kitchen. My then-employer, Gotham Book Mart, had sent me to get five or six large boxes of rare and not-so-rare books signed by the renowned playwright. One of the ways the sinking bookshop stayed afloat was by milking its proximity to famous authors. Signed books sold like hotcakes. They were a boon in a dying market, and if they couldn’t come in to sign and schmooze, we went to them.
The most remarkable such trip was to Provincetown, Massachusetts. We drove up from New York to spend the weekend with the famously hermetic illustrator Edward Gorey at his mansion on Cape Cod. Overgrown weeds had ambushed the house on all sides. Thorn bushes crowded the walkway up to the front door. Inside, the house reeked of cat urine.
Everywhere there were books: on sagging shelves, piled on top of tables, in stacks on the floor, cluttering up every conceivable surface. Any square inch not occupied by books was occupied by an equally endless collection of trinkets: I recall a rich assortment of colored glass bottles of every size along the many windowsills of Gorey’s great home. From the stairwell the theme song of “Cheers” resounded down through the sitting room. In contrast to the spooky, ethereal persona he projected through his books, the man was a television junkie.
Both Miller and Gorey have since died, and everywhere there are signs that bookstores are about to follow them to the grave. Of course, people have been talking about the death of God for a very long time, and the old bugger is still with us. So I’m not going to get all sentimental just yet. Bookstores — and, let’s just say it, books — may yet survive the online onslaught.
There was a time when I proudly stated I’d never buy a book from Amazon. A vacuous statement, and easy to say by someone who at the time lived in the vicinity of countless English-language bookstores. This was the same mouth that had proclaimed at various points in its history that it would never a) eat onions; b) kiss girls; c) speak a language other than English. The contradictory adage “Never say never” never seemed more appropriate.
Now that I’m living in a place with no access to anything in English but bestsellers — and even those must be hunted down — Amazon has begun to makes sense. It’s all so perfect. You go online (if you’re like me, you’re there already), find the book you want, click and wait for it to arrive at your door. All you need is an Internet connection and a mailing address. So why does clicking “Add to cart” make me feel so unethical?
I’ll chalk it up to having spent most of my working life in bookstores. I’ve breathed in so much of their dust that they’re part of me. The weirdo who comes wandering in off the street with Ziploc Baggies full of pennies and complaining about his rabbi will never infiltrate the virtual walls of online commerce (which is probably a good thing.) But neither will the Arthur Millers and Edward Goreys. And neither will all those odd and interesting people I’ve met over the years who simply happened to ask the right question to the right clerk at the right moment. Some of them are — yes, thanks to the Internet — still my friends.
Sure, you can have fun writing reviews and posting them to Amazon. There are all kinds of interactive ways of sharing your passion for books online, too. For me, however, they don’t quite measure up to the serendipitous experience of stumbling upon a book that changes you forever.
My personal library is like a large-scale model of the mental world I’ve inhabited for the past 20 or so years. I pride myself on being able to remember where and when I got just about every book in my collection. Downloading an e-book to my Kindle app is exhilarating for it’s speed and simplicity, but I doubt it will leave me with much after I’ve read and digested the text. Books have always been about more than just content, haven’t they?
Maybe I lack the visionary imagination of a Steve Jobs, but books are simple things in the end. They come in all shapes and sizes and they can take abuse. I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw a Kindle. A woman came into the bookshop, pulled the broken device from her purse and explained that she needed to buy back the books she’d lost when it slipped out of her hand onto the pavement. She was crestfallen.
As I muse on the demise of bookstores and the much-prophesied disappearance of the “dead-tree book” I watch my daughter flip the pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” She’s enjoying the colorful pictures of fruit and the feel of the cardboard in her hands. She pokes her fingers through the tiny holes. She’s just as taken in by the physical properties of this book as she is by the content — more, actually, as she can’t yet read.
What, I wonder, would her first experience with books be if she were to fondle a Kindle “Baby” reading device?
I had a great and turbulent time in New York, from the moment my mother kissed me goodbye in front of a Bowery hotel when I was 20 to my last meal eight years later in a Flatbush Chinese restaurant. I rented eight apartments, held three jobs, spent seven months on the dole, fought two court cases (I won both), and survived two relationships. You can only live like that in your twenties, and I did.
My first week in the city I wandered up to the East Village and browsed the used record shops. In those days, music came before books. I nursed the dream of fronting a band, playing CBGB and living on refried beans until I was famous enough to buy a flat on Central Park West. I even bid for and got a job at the Strand, the infamous bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street, because I’d read somewhere that Patti Smith had worked there before she became, well, Patti Smith. If I’d read that she’d worked at Balducci’s I probably would’ve pestered them. Such was the power of punk lore over my neophyte imagination.
While at the Strand I embraced a progressively more degenerate lifestyle. It was a heady place to work, despite the fact that they treated their employees like garbage. The Strand myth was that they would hire anyone: “struggling artists,” squatters, junkies. And they did. In fact, the place was crawling with vice. In the employee lounge — where rats scurried across the concrete floor from time to time — the refrigerator was always chock-full of malt liquor and beer. The management either drank as heavily as we did or looked the other way.
We’d go out and get hammered at the bars on First Avenue for lunch, then as soon as six o’clock rolled around we were back at our favorite watering hole on Avenue B for more. Far eastside bars still had sawdust on the floor and killer jukeboxes. We drank pitchers of McSoreley’s Ale, an East Village specialty, and bopped our sodden heads to Iggy and the Stooges. We’d stumble home to Greenpoint, stopping off at the all-night bodega for a few tall cans of Ballantine and cigarettes.
Around that time I began having severe bowel trouble. My steady diet of ephedrine, Twinkies and Yoo-hoo probably didn’t help. I recall squatting in the public toilet at the Strand munching on alfalfa sprouts, hoping for the best. It certainly didn’t occur to me at the time that ephedrine — which was my over-the-counter answer to shooting speed, something I wouldn’t have had the guts to do anyway — was calcifying my innards. My bad diet did the rest.
A couple of times a year my mom and step-dad would drive up from Maryland to visit. They’d bring me things like old furniture from our basement, crates of used albums and boxes packed with macaroni and cheese and canned salmon (why not tuna, I always wondered?). Then they’d take me, their emaciated son, out for a decent meal at Katz’s or the Second Avenue Deli. Hungry as I was, I’d crunch away at the bowl of sour pickles, slurp down the matzo ball soup and take the uneaten half of my corned beef sandwich home in a napkin. Once my mother even made me try kishke, which was delicious.
With my sister, we visited the Tenement Museum together on Orchard Street. There we found a photo of an original tenants who looked exactly like our mother. I’d take them on rollicking subway rides. I once even took them to the bar where I hung out. I think I wanted to show them my world, let them in on some deep secret about who I had become. Instead, all I managed to do was alienate them. After that, they visited less and less frequently.
On Monday nights I’d schlep down to the Ludlow St. Cafe with my guitar for open mic night. I’d order a pitcher of beer, put my name on the list, and slump down over a barstool to work up my courage. When they called my name I’d stagger up to the stage, plug in my faux-Rickenbacker hollow body to the amp, and start in on Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” The changes were simple and I knew all the words; besides, it was my favorite song. How could the public not love it?
Maybe it was my tendency to end every performance in a loud feedback roar a là Sonic Youth, or just the fact that I couldn’t sing and had absolutely no interest in my audience, but on my final night they pulled the plug on me. I kept playing before I realized no sound was coming out of the amplifiers. When it dawned on me, I slunk back to my barstool and ordered another pitcher.
And there died the first of my great New York dreams.