The Poetry of Numbers — Crossing Manhattan on the Memory Line
Where was the place after all …. Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.
James’s musings on the mundane nature of numbered streets close out his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). Driving back and forth across Manhattan on two of those numbered streets — from Hudson Street to Avenue A on 12th and to an art gallery near the Chelsea Piers on 23rd — I’m picking up the pieces of a column as they flash into view along the way.
The notion of focusing on my associations with a particular street comes to mind as soon as I decide to take 12th the whole way east to Academy Records, just off First Avenue. The cobblestone stretch between Hudson and Greenwich gives the crossing a time-frame, like a 19th-century soundline rumbling under the wheels until I make a sharp right across Greenwich and 7th Avenue South past the site of the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name, the building where Dylan Thomas breathed his last, and where in May 1981 I said goodbye to my surrogate father, the painter whose mural The Story of the Word fills the great rotunda of the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library.
Shortly after crossing Fifth Avenue I pass the niche once occupied by a small hotel called the St. George, where the elevator in use was (I swear) an over-sized dumbwaiter and where the saddest man I ever knew lived out his days. I was 18, Nick must have been 50 the summer we worked together at a waterfront hiring hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On the long subway rides back to Manhattan, in between daily jeremiads about the bullies in the office who tormented him, he told me the story of his childhood in Denmark, how he saw the king once, and was happy for the only time in his life. He had a strawberry-colored birthmark on his chin that his antagonists never stopped teasing him about; and so it was that this most harassed of men came home from hell five days a week to pull himself to his room in a dumbwaiter.
The Albert Hotel
Crossing University Place I’m looking a block south toward the ghost of the Albert Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe lived when he first came to the city and was teaching at N.Y.U. That’s why I stayed there when I came to New York after college. One day I asked the desk clerk if he knew who was practicing on the alto sax down the hall from my room. “Some guy named Coleman.” he said. Ornette Coleman, it turned out. Once upon a time if you looked in the Albert’s direction from 12th you’d have seen tables set up for the outdoor cafe of the hotel’s French restauarant, which was frequented by people like Andy Warhol, Anaïs Nin, and Rocky Graziano. “The Mothers of Invention stayed there,” says my son, the reason I’m bound for a record store. “So did the Mamas and Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ there.”
The Last Vestige
At Broadway, memories of a city where books once held sway haunt the sale tables lining 12th Street outside the Strand, the last vestige of the legendary Book Row that used to be around the corner on Fourth Avenue. When the Strand opened on Fourth in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, there were 48 secondhand bookstores on Book Row. The first book I ever bought from one of those shops, at age 10, was a Hardy Boys mystery called A Figure in Hiding, along with a 1932 Baseball Yearbook. Today even tiny rental spaces for bookstores on the Upper West Side cost $40,000 a month, as one book dealer reports in a recent New York Times story about how the situation is “threatening the city’s sense of itself as the center of the literary universe.”
The First New Yorker
After dropping my son off at Academy Records, another dying breed in a city where not long ago you could visit a dozen secondhand vinyl outlets below 14th Street, I take a left on Avenue A and head over to James’s “fabulous unattempted First” and from there up to 23rd, for me the most storied of crosstown thoroughfares, including 34th and even 42nd, two “mere addresses” that turn up in the titles of classic Hollywood films. The first true New Yorker I ever met was the daughter of a renowned abstract expressionist who lived on East 23rd between First and Second. Until I met this 16-year-old girl at a party in Indiana one summer, New York was the domain of my elders, like the man who died at St. Vincent’s after living and working in the city since 1920. Here was someone a year younger than I was who could talk about poetry, art, literature, and jazz, and who clearly knew considerably more about those things than I did. It was a happy day when she sent me a letter in response to my carefully worded (ten drafts) overture of undying friendship (I had written pages upon pages of unsent poetry about what she meant to me); better yet, she enclosed a snapshot someone took of her smiling as she put the envelope into a 23rd Street mailbox. I still have the photo. When I compare it to the one online of a handsome gray-haired woman, an artist herself now, the smiling girl is clearly there. How special is she? She changed my life. She’s why I wanted to be a writer.
A few blocks down the street between Third and Lexington (finally a street name, no number) is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where I stayed because my father liked it and it was near Gramercy Park and O’Henry’s neighborhood, one of my favorite parts of the city. I didn’t know at the time that Nathaniel West, the author of Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, had once worked at the front desk and given free room and board to writer friends like Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly finished The Maltese Falcon at the Kenmore. The hotel came to an unhappy end in the 1990s when criminal activity involving prostitution and narcotics led to its seizure by the U.S. Marshal Service.
Heading west on 23rd, I have Charlie Parker on the stereo playing “Now’s the Time,” and as always the city seems to know this music, and here we go, past Madison Square, past the Flatiron Building, except the real surprise is a jolt of Renaissance Revival beauty in the white palace that once housed the Stern Brothers Department Store and is now the only Home Depot where you enter under the head of a roaring lion.
If you think of the Albert and Kenmore Hall as the overture, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd near Eighth Avenue with its wrought-iron balconies, Gothic aura, and clientele of artists and writers is the full opera. According to Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin $30), Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a one-night stand there with Janis Joplin. Another famous Chelsea tryst involved strange bedfellows Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac.
If no other work of art was composed there, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” would be enough to lend the place rock and roll immortality. The night I spent in room 118 in February 1996, I didn’t hear Dylan’s “heat pipes just cough,” I heard the radiator knocking and hissing, dogs barking in the hall, a whirling sound like a theramin coming and going, a swing door that kept opening and closing with a sound like a gunshot followed by a screech, then a whine, then a crash. When a series of heavy thuds sounded just outside the door I blocked it with the room’s only chair. The black and white TV got only one channel, which came in crazed with interference, and when I finally went to sleep I dreamed of eating toasted cheese sandwiches with Madonna, who once stayed at the Chelsea, though I doubt it was in room 118.
Anne Elliott’s Eruption
My reason for driving way west is to visit “Fire and Ice,” my friend and former Town Topics colleague Anne Elliott’s exhibit at Soho20/Chelsea. Friday was the show’s last full day, which is a shame because the art is spectacular and deserves more than this brief mention. “Over the years,” the artist says, “I have returned again and again to volcanoes and glaciers, nature’s most extreme instruments for shaping the Earth.” As she “continues to explore these subjects,” she hopes that “this time” she will “get it right, catch it whole.” And she does. Keep in mind that she doesn’t go to books to see glaciers, caves, and volcanoes; she goes in person, gets close, and comes home to construct elaborate immensities like the giclee print, Volcanic Field, the wall relief Mauna Loa, and above all, the vast, elaborate aluminum mesh formation Caldera, with its subtle nuances of color and light, a great work, at once sprawling and shapely that turns an ordinary wall into a cyclotron.
So it goes in this “remarkable, unspeakable” city, where you can find a perfect storm of art on the third floor of a building at the “awful New York address,” 547 West 27th.