Editor’s Note: This post first appeared October 7, 2011.
I have lots of magazines lying around. They come in the mail, which is delivered by a woman in a tan Plymouth. I always wave at her, if I’m outside. Keep up the good work, Mail Lady!
My family and friends give me magazine subscriptions as gifts. It’s great. They know I am poor and shiftless and sit around gnawing on raw turnips etc. and would otherwise never encounter such.
One of these gift subscriptions is to The New Yorker. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The New Yorker, but it’s a pretty big deal. They’ve been around for a while. Keep up the good work, TNY!
I used to live in New York City about a million years ago, so I know a little something about the place. For a while there, I was a New Yorker, although I was usually on the brink of homelessness.
My friends who’d grown up in New York City thought I was fascinating. Not because of any talent I possessed, and certainly not because I had a clue about what I was doing there in the great metropolis.
I was a curiosity, a person of interest, simply because I was from the South, and not just the South, but Mississippi.
As soon as the phrase “I’m from Mississippi” left my mouth, I could see the projector kick on in their brains. I knew what they were seeing – a montage of evil, grotesque, lurid and comical images. (I know I’m leaving out some adjectives in that last sentence, but we don’t have all day.)
I was a fairly normal (by NYC standards, flat-out boring), soft-spoken young man. They made distrustful remarks about my accent: “You don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi.” As if this were somehow a clever ruse on my part. Pretending to be from Mississippi for fun and profit.
I worked at Strand Book Store, 12th and Broadway. I didn’t know anything about the Strand before I started working there. I didn’t know that Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine were former employees, or that it was a contender for the title of the largest used bookstore in the world.
All I knew is that a guy named Fred Bass was giving me a job. Mr. Bass told me that, until further notice, I was to arrive each morning 30 minutes before the doors opened, grab a broom, and start sweeping. Then I was to report to the warehouse on the fifth floor and fill mail orders until quitting time.
Failure to sweep was a serious offense. If you did not sweep, you did not last long at the Strand.
After a period of time, having proven my worthiness to the outfit, I was relieved of my sweeping duties. I was no longer a New Guy. It wasn’t much of a promotion, but it meant a lot to me.
I noticed that none of my coworkers on the fifth floor seemed to give a damn about how many orders they filled. If some poor toad in Des Moines had to wait six months for his used books to arrive, well, tough.
Except for Mr. Bass and his handful of capos, no one took the job seriously. You learned when it was necessary to appear to be working, and when it was not. Mr. Bass knew this, of course, and paid us what we were worth.
My coworkers on the fifth floor were no ordinary clerks. They were painters, choreographers, fashion designers, writers, actors, musicians, intellectuals, performance artists, political activists, and so on. In other words, they were mostly like me, lucky to have a job in a rotten economy.
That was the rotten economy before the first … The recession between the … Never mind. After you’ve seen the ol’ bait-and-switch a few times, you start to lose track.
“Hey! The rich people took all the money!”
“What, again? I am shocked, shocked.”
The fifth floor was a vast, dim cave jammed to the ceiling with thousands of boxes of books. To me, it was the city in microcosm, labyrinthine and mysterious.
Using nothing but boxes of remaindered books, some of the lifers had constructed what amounted to offices in the deepest recesses of the warehouse. In these makeshift hidey-holes, writers wrote, junkies nodded, religious types prayed and meditated.
I just wandered around with my order clipboard, pausing here and there to scan a few pages of, say, Graham Greene or Victor Serge. I spied on people, but not in a mean way. I was fascinated by everybody at the Strand. It was like working in a Dickens novel.
On the rare occasion when I actually filled an entire order, I’d take it down to the basement, where Tom Weatherly, a bona fide poet from Alabama, would mail it.
If Weatherly liked you, he might have you over to his place for a bowl of matzo-ball soup. You ate the soup and listened to a nonstop monologue about poetry, language, history, and music. He was a natural teacher and poet. He made everything seem alive and urgent.
I was a maniacal runner. For many months, I lived with my sister in Brooklyn Heights, and almost every day I ran across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan and back.
There is one memory to which I can’t affix a month or a year, but it’s the most powerful of all my memories of living in New York City.
I was standing on the pedestrian walkway in the middle of the bridge, traffic humming and clanking away underfoot. It was a clear, cold day. At the apex of the walkway, you were up there. It was an incredible prospect.
The city, all 360 degrees of it, refused to be apprehended. No matter how long I looked, it was impossible for me to take it all in. Liberty on her island. The wind-raked harbor. The vertical wonders of Manhattan. The ships on the river. The immense boroughs.
Protean. There’s a word.
Then, for only a moment, I felt the current of a living thing pass through my body.
I had arrived at the center of the universe. That’s what it felt like. For a few seconds, in the middle of all that chaos, I believe time actually stopped. The vital force was palpable. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
John Hicks lives in rural Alabama. He has more satellite dishes than the North American Aerospace Defense Command.