I, Esme Garland, do not approve of mess. This is unfortunate, because ever since I woke up this morning I’ve had a feeling that I might be in one. I sip my tea, and wonder if I have forgotten to submit a paper, pay the rent, feed Stella’s cat. Nothing springs to mind. I reflect that as I can’t even name it, the likelihood of a genuine mess is remote. I carry on sipping my tea and I look out on Broadway beneath my window.
The buildings cut the sunlight so abruptly in New York that the shadows look like a child has made them with scissors and black paper. The sun floods the cross streets in the mornings and the east sides of all the avenues are in deep shadow. The sharp light is one of the things I love here. The sharp light, the sharp people.
I like waking up to the sun streaming in. When I arrived here, I had schooled myself to expect a first-year’s room—a freshman’s room, they would say—one that had a tiny window with a view of a fire escape. I opened the door of this apartment, back in August, and there was the sun, streaming, streaming. It’s a studio, which means it is one room with a bathroom. It’s a good word, though—it works. Makes you think that you are part of the fraternity of starving artists who have struggled in garrets for centuries. It’s right above a twenty-four-hour deli, so it’s not quiet, but—a view
of Broadway, curving its way through the rigid grid of streets like a stream. It’s October now, and I still can’t get over it.
Irv Franks, in 14D, is lowering a basket down past my window. It has the usual shopping list and twenty-dollar bill pegged to the string. I check that one of the Koreans from the deli below is waiting for the basket. He is. He is smiling. Everyone, wherever they come from, knows that it is funny to replay village life in this way; everyone is pleased that it works.
I didn’t come to New York to escape the confines of my small town in England. I didn’t imagine that I could better express my personality in New York, nor that the city could rejuvenate my flagging spirits. My spirits rarely flag. I haven’t made the mistake, or achieved the hope, of thinking that New York might be my sanctuary or my redemption. Columbia University offered me a place to study art history, and threw in a scholarship for good measure. Nowhere else offered any money. Therefore I am in New York.
Things didn’t seem promising initially. I arrived like everyone else did, after swearing that I wasn’t a spy or guilty of moral turpitude, and that I hadn’t got any snails. In the first bewildering minutes outside JFK, on a Friday night in the rain, I stared out at veering yellow cabs, airport staff screaming abuse at cowboy operators, sleek limos nosing along the bedlam, the whole teetering on the brink of chaos. I thought, as so many people do, This is impossible. I won’t be able to manage this. But then, we do manage—we manage to get into the city at night without being murdered, and wake up the next day still alive, and shortly afterwards we are striding down Broadway in the sun.
I don’t have to go into college today. I am going to meet Mitchell for lunch, but first I am going to go to the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum. I am here to do a PhD in art history on Wayne Thiebaud, and I think Hopper is an influence on him. Thiebaud paints pictures of cakes. Or I should say, now that I am getting the hang of it, that he illustrates the demotic nature of America at the same time as
achieving a fine poignancy and awakening a never-quite-fast-asleep nostalgia for the prelapsarian innocence of a younger America, whilst staying within a formal rigor in terms of composition. Anyway, the lollipops and the cakes and the gumball machines are great.
I step across the hall to Stella’s apartment, to give Earl, the cat, fresh water and food. He slinks around my legs while I sort it all out.
I am early; I can walk down Broadway for a while.
Outside Brunori’s market, there is watercress bedded in ice, great boxes of lush dark cherries, asparagus bound with violet bands. It is owned by Iranians, who have sounded out the mood of the Upper West Side, and given themselves an Italian history and flavor. I go inside. It smells at first of warm bread baked with raisins and cinnamon. If you move a couple of inches to the right, it smells of fresh coffee. If you go over to the produce aisle, it smells cold, of grass and earth. It is not a big store; it’s just that a lot is crammed in. I buy six apricots, yellow into orange into a flush of red, all downy perfection, imported from somewhere where it’s still summertime.
I consider breaking faith with my usual bagel shop for the new one that I reach first. There is a crush of people trying it out, which makes the decision easier. The staff will be new, the customers won’t know what they want, and I am not very good at waiting. I don’t know what to think about when I’m waiting.
I go past the dull underwear shop. How does it survive, even on this radiant street, when there are such delectable places to buy underwear all over New York? Perhaps not everybody wants delectable underwear.
I go into my usual bagel place. It is basic, with peeling linoleum. In the back, in a room without windows, the bakers are shirtless and sweating. Sometimes you can glimpse into the back, the bagels all in rows, all bathed in red light. I don’t know if it is the red light of fire. There are often two lines at the bagel shop, and when you get near the front, you can step up to the Perspex boxes on the
counter and feel which are the warmest, and so the freshest. I ask for two sesame bagels. Then I order a coffee.
“The coffee machine is broken,” says the girl behind the counter. I nod understandingly, and hand her a ten-dollar note. As she is getting my change, the man who is looking after the other queue of people troops over to the machine and pours out a coffee for his customer. The girl serving me and I both watch this little operation, and then we look at each other for a second.
“I think it’s working again,” I say.
The girl says, “I said, the machine is broken.”
We appear to be at an impasse. She is banking on my not making a fuss, being a foreigner, young, female.
I say, “Can I see the manager?”
She says, without turning her head to check, “The machine is fixed.” She gets me a coffee and when I pay for it, she suddenly grins at me. “Have a nice day,” she says. By the time I step back out onto Broadway, I feel I have undergone a rite of passage. Trial by bagel. Am I now a real New Yorker?
Across the street, squashed between a Staples and a Gap, is The Owl, the bookshop I love to visit. Copies of National Geographic spill out on the pavement in front of it like treasure, yellow spines gleaming, promising further riches within.
Perhaps because it seems so insignificant, The Owl manages to remain a ramshackle old bookshop. Staples and Gap, blinded by their own brightness, barely notice its existence, nor, it seems, does any other behemoth on the hunt for suitable premises. But it glitters away there, a dark jewel in a shining street. It is easily overlooked, but it is deep-rooted in the city, and I like to think it shares something of older and greater endeavors. One age might pass over what another prized, and the next age might then revere it. Museums and libraries are in place, of course, to keep past treasures safe through the neglect, but the museums and libraries have a flotilla of insignificant vessels that are just as vital. Secondhand bookshops are some of the tugs that can bring the bounty safely to harbor. The Owl is small, and it is definitely shabby, but it is tinged with lofty purpose.
Regularly inundated with more books than he knows what to do with, George, the laconic and gentle owner, often tips some out into the dollar-only shelves outside the shop, and occasionally, here can be found hidden wonders. I keep an eye out for old auction catalogs; sometimes it is the only chance you might get to see a painting you need to study before it passes beyond the doors of some moneyed collector. There was an exhibition catalog out here for Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings, bound in the blue that he loved from the packets of Gauloise cigarettes—that milky blue shade on the spine was how I found it. Other people find even better things; maybe they are willing to look for longer. I was at the bookstore once when George was telling the story to those gathered around of finding a signed Robert Frost out here, the signature in spidery green ink across the flyleaf, clearly written in the frailty of age, but genuine too. He kept it for a while, the collector’s impulse vying with that of the salesman. In the end, the poetic sensibility won out over both; George was better off, in his measured opinion, reading the man’s poetry than gloating over his signature. “Something there is,” he said, slowly, but with his eyes alight, “that does not love a signed first.”
The name attracted me in the first place; it is not a name that seems calculated to bring in a torrent of custom, which immediately sets it apart from almost everything else in New York. The Owl. It doesn’t even have any sign to indicate that it is a bookshop; it could just as easily be a bar, or a pet store specializing in raptors.
I love to slip into the bookstore. It is my haven—I don’t have to prove myself there, as I do, endlessly, at Columbia. I can go to browse or go to listen. It is open until late, sometimes past midnight, and I usually go in the evening when I am too tired to do any more work. They have the books you want to be there; what would a secondhand bookshop be if it didn’t have the poets and the writers that you will one day (oh surely!) read—Milton and Tolstoy and Flaubert and Aquinas and Joyce—but also all sorts of off-the-wall catalogs and criticism?
There is the smell, too, of course—the reassuring smell of paper, new paper, soft old paper, recalling each person to the first time they really did press their nose into a book. But what I like best is the company—I like the people who work there, and the customers who come in at night to hang around and chat. George works there a lot, and less often, a guy about my age called David. On Sundays the person in charge is a woman called Mary; she brings her dog with her, Bridget, a huge German shepherd. I would have thought that the presence of a large Alsatian simply could not encourage custom, but the contrary seems to be true. People rush in to see Bridget, and sometimes buy a book by accident. In the evenings there is a night manager called Luke who often wears a bandana. He is broad of shoulder and taciturn in aspect—he looks to be around thirty. When Luke is at the front counter at night, without George there, he sometimes has a guitar with him, and sits playing bits of tunes to himself. He nods in acknowledgment whenever I come in, but I can never think of anything much to say to him. I like to crouch down on the cheap brown carpet and browse the art section when Luke is learning some tune or other. He can’t see me because of the Southeast Asia section, but I can hear him.
Now, I push open the door. On an ordinary day, coming in from the glare of sunlit Broadway, you will be able to see nothing at all, and you will stand there blinking, trying to adjust to the gloom. And gradually, you will notice that two eyes are fixed on you, and that these eyes, though apparently penetrating, belong to a stuffed owl that is nailed to a tree branch that juts out from a wall of books.
The store is narrow, about ten feet across, with a central staircase leading to a mezzanine. There are books on both sides of the stairway, in ever more precarious piles, and it is a hardy customer who will pick her way carefully up the stairs to the dusty stacks beyond. Downstairs is a tumble of books that I sometimes surreptitiously straighten. There are sections labeled with old notices, but they flow into each other in an unstoppable tide, so that history
is compromised by mythology leaking into it, mystery books get mixed up with religion, and the feminist section is continually outraged by the steady dribble of erotica from the shelves above. When books do manage to make it to shelves, instead of being in piles near their sections, they are shelved double deep, and the attempts at alphabetization are sometimes noticeable, with “A”s and “Z”s serving as bookends to the jumble in the center.
I would like to know how long the store has been here; it looks as if it predates most other stores on the Upper West Side. It always looks as if it has descended from its peak to a sort of comfortable scruffiness, as Venice does, and, as with Venice, it might be that there never was an immaculate peak, where gold was all burnished and wood did not rot, nor paint peel. The store has probably had this cockeyed, lovably crooked look since it first opened its little door onto Broadway.
This morning, George is already there, and so is Luke. George, tall and stooping, is wearing a homespun shirt and a knitted garment in olive green that might have started life as a cardigan. He has a green stone pendant on a black shoelace around his neck. I think he might have been at Woodstock in his youth. He has the abstracted air of an old-fashioned scholar—as if he’s pondering the great questions of Kierkegaard or Hegel, and has perpetually to wrench himself back into the quotidian world. He smiles in recognition when I come in, though I think he would be hard put to remember my name. Luke is up one of the ladders that run round the shop on a rail; he nods at me and says, “Hey.”
His ladder is blocking the art section, so I wait at the counter.
“I keep meaning to ask how old the shop is,” I say.
George is leafing through a book with tipped-in plates, making sure they are all there. He attends to one carefully before answering.
“It’s been open for the browsing pleasure of New Yorkers for a fair number of years now.” His speech, as always, is unhurried, and every sentence has a falling cadence. It is a restful voice.
“I thought it had been here for a while. It has that feel, doesn’t it?”
He considers. “Yes, I think it does. They say that Herman Melville bought A History of the Leviathan here—”
“And Poe lived just three blocks north—if he came in here on a dark night, we could have been his inspiration for ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ . . .”
“This is incredible. I had no idea . . . I should have looked it up . . .”
“Uh-huh. Hemingway used to look in a lot. On his breaks back here from Paris. And Walt Whitman, when he got tired of Brooklyn. They even say that Henry Hudson looked in when he sailed his boat up the river. It wasn’t the Hudson then, of course, but I don’t recall the Indian name for it.” He pauses, casting a glance around the book-filled walls, and then says, with a bland countenance, “I would imagine he would have found something to interest him here.”
“Henry Hudson,” I say, finally getting it. “Okay. When did the store open?”
“Nineteen seventy-three,” says George. He glances at me with his fugitive smile. “We do get Pynchon in here from time to time.”
I shake my head. “You’re not getting me twice.”
“Oh, sure,” says George, “believe Melville writes Moby-Dick because of this place, but not that Pynchon, who lives a few blocks away, would ever cross our threshold.”
“Yeah. That part is true,” says Luke. He comes down from the ladder. “So you stop by in the mornings too?” He walks with a pile of books to the back of the shop.
“Yes, sometimes,” I say, to his retreating form. As he seems to think it is fine to ask a question and then walk away, I say to George, “I’m on my way to see the Edward Hopper exhibition. He’s a big influence on Thiebaud—I’m working on Wayne Thiebaud, for my PhD.”
“Oh, that guy,” says George, managing to dismiss the man, his art, and my doctorate in three syllables. I decide not to get into Thiebaud with George.
“Have you always been a bookseller?” I ask him instead.
He considers. “It sometimes feels like it,” he says. “Certainly for most of my life. After college, I was a teacher. I taught English at a small but perfectly formed college called Truman State. It’s in Missouri. You won’t have heard of it.”
I shake my head to show that he’s right.
“Anyway, at a yard sale on a street in Kirksville, I came across a book by E. B. White. You’ve heard of E. B. White?”
“Yes indeed, and the less well-known but equally rewarding Trumpet of the Swan. The book I found was called Here Is New York. If you read that book in your early twenties and you don’t want to move to New York, there’s something wrong with you.”
Leaning past me, he selects a slender little hardcover book from the New York section and flicks to the last page. “He’s talking about a tree, listen to this. ‘In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.” If it were to go, all would go—this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.’?”
He twists a smile at me, half-wry, half-solemn.
“Your bookstore is like his tree.”
He nods as he closes the book, and looks up as another customer comes in. She makes a little shocked noise, so I look up where she is looking; she is staring at the owl nailed to its perch, and is backing away. As the backing away is theatrical rather than discreet, George obligingly asks if anything is wrong.
“That owl,” says the customer—a woman who looks like she subsists on a diet of wheatgrass and worry—“is it—was it ever alive?”
George considers the owl for just long enough to make me want to laugh.
“Yes, ma’am, it was. But I don’t think you should worry—its nocturnal peregrinations are long since over. Could I perhaps cross the border of good manners and ask why you seem so concerned? Are you missing one?”
She takes no notice. “It is organic matter?”
“I believe it is.”
“It must be carcinogenic. I mean, ohmigod, you’re breathing dead owl dust. I have to get out of here. I’m gonna call city hall—this is crazy. You need to get rid of that thing.”
“Ma’am, ma’am!” says George, in a voice that stops her as she is halfway out. “Please don’t let this get any further, but I see I will have to let you into our secret.”
It is too tempting, despite the cancerous owl dust. She stops.
“It isn’t real, ma’am, we just like to pretend it is. We’re called The Owl, we wanted an owl for the store. But you are very right, that would constitute an environmental hazard. This looks like a real one, ma’am, but it is in fact a man-made artifact—in plain words, it’s plastic. And please don’t touch it, it’s a valuable piece.”
She doesn’t look remotely like she wants to touch it. She comes back in fully, approaches the bird warily. I’d love it to suddenly squawk.
“They look like real feathers to me,” she says. “I think they’re hazardous also.”
George says he isn’t qualified to say whether the feathers themselves offer a clear and present danger. Luke has come back to the front, and is standing on the first stair radiating contempt. George has lost interest in the game, and says, “Ma’am, if you are so troubled by the bookstore owl, then, reluctant as I am to discourage patrons of secondhand bookstores, could I suggest that you might be happier at Barnes and Noble across the way, which, I am pretty sure I am safe in promising, you will find to be entirely owl-free?”
When she has gone, George gets the next book in a pile and prices it. Then he stops, and looks up at Luke.
“City hall. These people.”
“Tell me about it,” Luke answers. “George, I’m taking these books to the post office for Mr. Sevinç. There’s nothing else to mail?”
“Sadly, no,” says George. “For Sevinç? Those are the cartography books?”
Luke glances down at the brown package. “Yeah. The Vatican one is cool.”
“Isn’t it though? I would love to see those for real,” says George.
“He’s in town November,” says Luke, looking impassive.
“Ah,” says George. They nod at each other very slightly. “Mr. Sevinç is a customer of ours who lives much of the time in Istanbul,” says George, in explanation, to me. “When he visits The Owl, he brings gifts from the mystic East.”
“What does he bring?” I ask. Maybe they just mean marijuana. But I am imagining silks, brocades, spices.
George must be able to see the pictures in my head. “Oh, treasures, treasures,” he says. “He brings elixirs made by wizards when the world was young, cloth of gold woven in Byzantium, he brings cardamom and cloves and nutmegs, he brings parchments from the great Library of Constantinople, plucked from the flames by good men and true. Some things they managed to rescue from the barbarous hordes.”
“By which, of course, I mean the Christians,” he says. “The Fourth Crusade?”
I nod again. George is looking expectant. My knowledge of Crusaders is a little hazy; mostly I think of them as embroidered little men in St. George tunics. I begin to speak, hoping that inspiration or the memory of a history lesson will return, but Luke cuts in.
“Halva, and Turkish Delight,” says Luke. “That’s what Sevinç brings. And it’s outstanding. George doesn’t eat refined sugars or saturated fats, but he makes an exception for Sevinç’s candy.”
George spreads out his hands. “Once a year, some halva—and halva has nutritional value—from the old souk in Istanbul. So sue me.”
“Good seeing you,” Luke says to me on his way out.
I say to George, “The owl is real, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says, and grins. He cranes forward to check that Luke has not paused to tidy the outside books, and says, in a low voice laden with mirth, “You seem to have made some sort of positive impression on Luke. He is rarely so loquacious.”
I do not stay very long today; I am too restless to sink into that Zen state necessary for truly accomplished browsing. I still have this feeling that something is different, that there is something I have forgotten, that something is wrong. But it won’t come. I head for the park, to go to see the Hopper paintings.
Central Park is another place I can’t believe I see every day. I had thought that it would be as flat as a tabletop, and municipal, a large-scale version of an English park with swings and flower beds, neat and clipped and regulated and depressing. It is nothing like that at all. Today, there are cyclists and runners and tourists and inline skaters and skateboarders and people practicing ballet moves on a patch of grass, and police on horseback and a girl with a snake, and a woman with three cats on leads, and a motionless golden man on a plinth. It is the jubilant blazon of the city.
I feel better when I reach the gallery. The first gallery I went to in New York was the Met—like everyone else—and I saw a sign that said “No strollers on the weekend” so I zipped through all the rooms at breakneck speed, looking reprovingly at people if they seemed likely to loiter. When I reached the picture I most wanted to see—Garden at Vaucresson by Vuillard, whose exuberant joy you can feel even as you walk into the room—I barely stopped to look at it for fear of Met officials bearing down on me with a loudspeaker: “Miss! No strolling! Step along there, miss. Look lively. It’s the weekend.”
All of it is like that, at the beginning. Every conversation seems fraught with difficulty, every pronunciation produces a frown. I spend time learning how to use the transport system, learning how to speak so that people understand me, learning how to melt into the pot.
You can’t be slow. You can’t hesitate, you can’t ask questions with the usual polite packing around them—“Excuse me, would it be all right if . . . ?” Those are courtesies for a place where English is everyone’s first language. Here, it is the lingua franca, and it has to be boiled down to its simplest form. If you want to be understood, you can’t use irregular past participles. “Has he left?” results in blank stares. You have to say, “Did he leave?” You can’t ask for tuna in a deli and pronounce it “chuna”—because the men, with a big queue of people and no time, will hear the “ch” and make you a chicken sandwich. You can’t sound the “t” in “quarter” or “butter,” because “quarter” and “butter” don’t have any “t” in them here. You can’t even ask for a hot-water bottle—it is one of the first things I need, being a sovereign remedy for period pains, and nobody seems ever to have heard of them. A hot-water bottle? A what? No, we don’t sell them, miss. No, I don’t know where you could buy one. Eventually I corner a hapless assistant who has already denied the existence of hot-water bottles in America, and I explain exactly what I am looking for. It is flat, and made of rubber. You pour boiling water into it, and then fasten it with a stopper and slip it into your bed. It then warms up the bed.
“Oh, yeah. We sell those. You mean a water bottle.”
“Yes, that’s it! A hot-water bottle.”
“Yeah. Miss? They’re not hot.”
Once I get to the Whitney, the aesthetics of which escape my grasp, I breathe more deeply and move more slowly. I spend a long time with the Hopper pictures. I like to look at how he paints light. Somehow he uses light to make everything still. I am glad I am going to focus on Thiebaud, though, and not Hopper. Mitchell has a Hopper on his bedroom wall—the one with the gas pumps that looks like it is an illustration for Gatsby. Everyone is lonely in Hopper, everyone is sad. Everyone is waiting.
Unless I leave now, I will be late for lunch. I hurry.
I am meeting Mitchell at a diner. He doesn’t take me to fancy restaurants, apart from the first night we met, and that was just for a drink. He loves discovering great hole-in-the-wall places. I don’t
think he wants to be told where is good by Time Out or the New York Post; he wants to find it for himself. Or he wants to already know a great place, so that he can be irritated when Time Out finds it too.
I am still perplexed as to why Mitchell ever asked me out, ever even approached me. Mitchell is the kind of man you expect to see with someone who has that sort of easy sun-kissed I-just-stepped-out-of-my-Calvin-Klein-shoot look. I am not bad, but I am not in that league. Men don’t vault over things to get to me, or get tongue-tied in my beautiful presence. Most of the time, sad to say, they can’t shut up. He has a kind of confidence that I really like. I’ve never met anyone like him, with even a fraction of his easy assurance. I spend a lot of time trying to second-guess other people, and hoping that they like me; Mitchell doesn’t move through the world like that. He is like a sun; people react to him as if they are being warmed by the first spring sunshine. It is exhilarating to be with him, to be a satellite to that radiance.
On a more practical level, he tips waiters to get the best table, and it works. How do you know how to do that? How do you know how to give an amount that isn’t stingy or stupid, and won’t cause the waiter to stare down broadly at the note and say, “I’m sorry, sir, is this a bribe?”
He lives in an apartment on Sutton Place for free. It belongs to his Uncle Beeky. He really has an Uncle Beeky. Mitchell’s family also has a house on Long Island, at the seaside, but I think it’s empty most of the time.
His apartment looks like Edith Wharton has just vacated it. There are curtains made of lush brocade, sofas you sink into, fringed lamps, walls painted in heritage colors, books that are bound in fat shiny leather with raised bands, gilt mirrors, space to walk around. When I stay over, I curl my toes into the deep pile of the carpet and forget about my flat Ikea rugs. Mitchell doesn’t notice the apartment, doesn’t connect to it. There should be a person there who wants to stop and slip his hand over the curved oak banister, with its dull gleam, or pause at the sudden presence of a
ghost, a spirit from an older New York, at home in the soft shadows. Mitchell would be better fitted to somewhere designed by Mies van der Rohe, somewhere with clean lines and clarity. Somewhere that doesn’t weigh down into the earth and into a thousand social precepts from long ago.
In a place he’s borrowing from Beeky, perhaps he can’t imprint his own personality too much. There are a few things that are his—the sheets, I would hope, are his rather than Beeky’s. They are a dark sinful mulberry color, but are redeemed by being made of the most beautiful cotton that has a sort of downy pile on it.
Mitchell is definitely tidy; his apartment is the most controlled space since NASA. This is, of course, very important indeed. I can’t imagine falling in love with a messy person. He is thirty-three, ten years older than I am, but it doesn’t feel as if there is any age difference. He teaches economics at the New School, but the nearest thing to a book in that apartment, aside from the leather ones that Edith and Henry left, are this year’s copies of the New Yorker in the bathroom. He says he has put them all in storage, that he has everything he needs on his laptop and his iPad, but I don’t agree. Loving my little bookshop, I don’t agree.