Gem Spa and The Whiffle Ball Kid

by Thomas Beller


2nd Ave & St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

I walked into the Gem Spa last night, spoke to the guy behind the counter.
“Where are all the magazines?” I said. I nodded to the corner where a bunch of plastic boxes stacked haphazardly, each brimming with tourist tchotchkes that were also hanging in rows on the walls behind it–I Love NY bags, NYPD pens, Statue of Liberty figurines.
My question was not entirely sincere. A friend in the neighborhood had told me, moments earlier, standing on the sidewalk after dinner, taking in the raucous St. Marks Place scene at night slid, that the establishment was keeping odd hours, which is the retail equivalent of the funny sound a car’s engine makes just before it breaks down entirely. 

“No one buys them anymore,” said the guy behind the counter.

“When did you stop selling them?”
“A month ago.”
I glanced at the tourist crap and remembered the rows and rows of magazines arranged on the wall, with piles of them on the floor below. I don’t want to lament this in terms of some great cultural loss. It was just a way of life, staring at all the magazine covers, knowing that people were burrowing away in Berlin and London and New York and Paris constructing them. And it was a kind of timeless place — a constant tidal influx of new magazines, new fashions, new faces that in some way never changed. 
I made some noises to the effect of asking if they would be able to stay open. He said they would. 
“You still make Egg Creams, though, right?” I said.
Yes, he said they still make egg creams, and he seemed excited to make me one, “Chocolat or Vanilla.” But I said I wasn’t in the mood for an Egg Cream now but would get one later, and bought coconut water instead. I was betting on his still being there, later. Gem Spa is perhaps the last old school Egg Cream on the second avenue. 
— June 2019

The swimming pool was very warm. There were huge trees in the backyard and they swayed in the breeze, and at the local Haymarket–which is sort of a Balducci’s for Connecticans–my friend left the key in the car while we went shopping and it was still there when we came back. I mean, he left the key in the car, and car running. But no one was interested in the Audi.

The temperature of the pool and the various pool toys and the sweltering weather and the fact it was the July 4th Weekend all contributed to a dreamy atmosphere–we went a little insane running around on the fresh green lawn and then had a barbecue.

At some point, a whiffle ball game broke out. There was lots of laughter at this event but no one really said a damn word to each other, which I suppose was fine, but it made it somewhat conspicuous when a skinny guy with sunglasses and jeans that were too small started to take some cuts with the whiffle ball bat. He was good. He swiped at the thing. Skinny kid; no shirt. He looked like a mini-Dave Kingman. Later he and his friend, another pale skinny guy with long red hair, engaged in a kind of gladiatorial battle. He had a whiffle ball bat, the other guy had a floppy foam tube thing you float on–and they beat each other viciously in the dusk while we all stood on the porch and tried to find the proper moral attitude in the presence of recreational pain.

A week later I was taking a picture of Gem Spa’s front door. It was late, and the night was a little lost. Or maybe that was the effect of Gem Spa, a late night oasis of egg creams, magazines, strange candy, and moods. I took one snap with a figure blurrily in the background, opened the door, and discovered the figure was the whiffle ball kid. He was in a mood. Turns out he was an aspiring model, and was searching out aRude magazine, where he had a photo spread.

“By you or of you?” I said.

“I was the model.”

Gem Spa, normally so proficient at having everything you could want in the magazine trade, was out. Or not yet in. In either case they didn’t have aRude and the whiffle ball kid was a bit down.

“I need the tear-sheets,” he said.

I asked if I could take his picture and he obliged, and I felt like I might cheer him up a little, letting him practice his model moves, which, amazingly, he did. He turned his face a little and his expression emptied and became rather evocative. Here is the picture. Then we said good-bye. Never got his name.


— July 2000

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