Our Town downtown
December 18, 2006
It was last Thursday and I could have stayed home and read the magazine that just came in the mail or finished re-reading James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ which had jumped off the shelf at me in an airport store in Salt Lake City at Thanksgiving or gone down to First Avenue and watched the NFL game at a favorite bar and eaten chili out of a big white bowl there.
But I had promised myself for two days that I’d go down to 4th Street to KGB (it’s a bar, and more than that) to a reading where three known women novelists were going to read from their latest work in support of an organization I’d never heard of but which sounded interestingly worthwhile in the listing in Time Out New York. ‘Behind The Book’ it’s called and they get authors to go into classrooms and they work with teachers to make it a lot more interesting than just having an author go into classrooms and read. I know that because when I got to KGB, I was one of only three people who are pathologically early to things like I am and I talked to a woman from the organization who was placing some cards promoting its mission on the wooden surfaces around the small second floor bar space in KGB that is one of the great spaces you’ve been in. Think the warm lighting and colors from the movie ‘Reds’.
So, yes, I did go. And the women who read were wonderful and maybe some of the 30 or so listeners fell in love with them like I did for being smart and lively-minded and beautiful standing in that good light reading to us with cars outside making some noise and kids too. The only thing missing was smoke. They say there was an ordinance in Boston that made an exception to the no-smoking laws there; it said that if now-dead former Celtic coach Red Auerbach came to a game and wanted to light a cigar like he used to when the great Celtic teams he coached had the game in hand he could. Well, KGB ought to be the exception here. I remember lighting up there when I used to go there all the time when I first moved here. I used to live closer.
It’s funny about this city; every neighborhood is so self-contained with its own taverns and bodegas and pizza slices and dry cleaners that you don’t have to go back to your former neighborhood to see the old bartenders and pizza guys like you thought you would. You get to the point where you think you don’t miss them, but you do. Walking from the Gramercy Park area where I live now down Second Avenue toward 4th Street past where I used to live and where I seldom walk now for some reasons, reminded me how suburban the rest of the city is compared to downtown south of 14th Street. It’s a better world down there. Pete Hamill wrote something like this once, that it’s one of the sad things in life to regret not living any longer in a place you shouldn’t have left. That’s me and the regrets I have over leaving a studio apartment on 13th Street. I can’t even walk down that street.
Anyway, on my way to KGB a little bit before 7:00 when I’m not even sure I want to be going to it, I’m passing all the places I used to pass and when I come to the wrought iron fence along the side of St. Mark’s Church, my eyes almost water as if I’m seeing my late mother sitting there against the fence unaware of me. But it’s not my mother, it never is; it’s a soft-faced black woman who I haven’t passed in the four years since I moved away, but who I used to pass in my going and coming on the street every night for four better years. She would sit there each night, shaking a big plastic cup like you’d get a $9 beer in at a Yankee game and she’d shake it all night. I used to give her a dollar every night.
We stared at each other, nearly gasping or collapsing in recognizing each other, like mother and son almost. I gave her ten bucks and smiled at her with wide eyes and told her she looked great. She smiled and was glad to see me I could tell and kept rattling the cup. I think I loved the women who read later because my heart had been opened by her and the walk downtown toward home. Merry Christmas to her. You too.
-- Bill Gunlocke