Gem Spa and The Whiffle Ball Kid

by Thomas Beller

10/25/2002

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

Neighborhood: East Village

We convoyed out to a house in Connecticut. The swimming pool was very warm. There were huge trees in the backyard and they swayed in the breeze, and beneath them, an expanse of lawn. We went shopping at the local Haymarket–which is sort of a Balducci’s for Connecticans–and my friend left the key in the car while we were inside shopping. The car 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 whole scene was suffused with plentitude.

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. So did the fact that there were about twelve or so people there, and no one really knew everyone, not even the host, but everyone knew someone. There were some famous people there, and people who were going to be famous, and people who would have been famous if they cared enough to try, and some people who really didn’t care, and some people who did care but would never show it. Everyone present fell into at least two of these categories.

Perhaps to break this tension – which could have achieved by actual, human interaction, but everyone was too cool for that – we went a little insane running around on the fresh green lawn. Then we 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

**

 

Addendum.

–June 2019

 

The other night I was saying goodbye to my friend who lives on St. Marks Place, just a few doors down from Gem Spa, when I turned to look at it and said, “Something is wrong.”

She said 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. 

After we said goodbye, I walked into the store.  It looked as though it had been ransacked. The most obvious absence were the racks of magazines. 
“Where are all the magazines?” I said to the man behind the counter. I nodded to the corner where a bunch of plastic boxes were 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.

“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. 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 these publications and the images within, and then other people were buying them, studying them. I have always loved looking at magazine covers. It was a kind of timeless place — a constant tidal influx of new magazines, new fashions, new faces that in some way never changed. 
When I wrote, nineteen years ago, “A week later I was taking a picture of Gem Spa’s front door,” what I meant was that I knew that nothing lasts forever and I was already in an archival mode. In some respects, I would have been glad to know Gem Spa had remained itself, relatively intact, for so long. But I would have been amazed to hear that no one bought magazines.
Standing amidst the cheap trinkets, my eyes raking the walls as though all those faces might again appear, 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. Our eyes met. The late-night egg creams of my youth!
Yes, he said they still made egg creams, and he stood from his stool and stepped forward. He seemed excited to make me one. “Chocolat or Vanilla?” he said. But I said I wasn’t in the mood for an Egg Cream just now. I would get one later. The truth was I wasn’t ready for that much sugar, but also, the moment wasnt sweet and I didn’t want to pretend it was.  I 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
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