Before Oprah

by

08/19/2008

West 47th St., NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

Back in the days when bookselling was uninfected by the dubious influence of Oprah’s Book Club, I was employed at the historic Midtown Book Retailers, a New York City landmark. The bookshop was housed in a now bulldozed brownstone buffeted by crags of diamond mines, popularly known as West 47th St. Manhattan, ground zero of the vertebrate universe, as advertised two blocks down on a marquee in Times Square. YOU ARE STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION. I was fresh out of college making six dollars an hour. Bookselling was an honest, almost boring venture. There was no great fortune to be had. We still did things on electric typewriters, for instance. They had installed push button phones a year before I was hired. We all moonlighted, like waiters, as someone else. The manager was a struggling cartoonist. I was an unknown poet. Everybody was something, but not a book clerk. That was just how we paid the bills.

Midtown Book Retailers was one of the last holdouts from the Golden Age, a distant, almost biblical time in American literature when those who could remember remembered Marianne Moore and George Gershwin schmoozing in the back garden. Martha Graham would pop in and leave a contribution to the Henry Miller fund, sent to him bi-monthly in Paris so he could live the life of a bohemian and write, unfettered by worldly concerns. We should be so lucky. It was a time when important Men of Letters came by to browse, converse about James Joyce’s latest literary ruse, and pick up the latest issue of the Dial; a time when people smoked around flammable substances and threw parties for poets who hadn’t yet killed themselves. The walls were hung with their portraits like a mausoleum. People would flutter in off the streets to admire them. “Who’s that? And that? And that??” It was also the kind of place Ezra Pound wouldn’t set foot in because it was “Jewish-owned,” and therefore a political nemesis.

By the time I ended up pulling in six dollars an hour, Midtown Book Retailers was a shadow of its former self, and no longer Jewish-owned. Not that that made a difference: everyone who ever ran the place excelled in losing money. If the beloved bookstore was there at all, it was due not to its illustrious clientele but to a few daring philanthropists who, every decade or so, bailed it out of debt. Ezra Pound had gone mad decades before and died a laughing stock, but his portrait still haunted the wall, leering out at you as you entered the bathroom. Next to him was a grandfather clock, equally deceased.

The shop was now owned by a portly postcard maven from Lake Tahoe, Linus Gray, who lived in a spacious studio on the top floor of the old brownstone, three flights up. The in-between floors housed one of history’s best-kept archives of literary waste. Warehoused memorabilia from every notable writer of the century, back issues of every important literary magazine from the ‘20’s to the ‘40’s, artwork by Truman Capote, Isaac Babel’s Russian notebooks, the works. A graveyard of dust, cleaned weekly by a surly old Haitian named Baba. Vintage wallpaper enlivened the atmosphere with lime green swirls and lemon asphodels. An enormous birdcage sat in the middle of an unused day-room packed with the rarest species of modern first editions. An enormous empty birdcage. Perhaps, in the evenings, Linus Gray’s pet pterodactyl returned from scavenging the city for crumbs to sleep in it. The imagination was thus engulfed by history. Linus Gray woke up at three p.m. and took his afternoon meal in his office. His routine: one of his employees (me) would call up Krauthammer’s Delicatessen, within spitting distance, and order 1) a bagel, burnt, with butter and 2) a Diet Coke (can, no ice). This would naturally come to a total of fourteen dollars or so, plus tip. After all, this was midtown, the neck of the world. Ten minutes later the delivery boy stepped in like Fred Astaire, took his tip, bowed in servility and returned to his undiscovered country of pastrami-on-rye across the street, where waitresses were still named Midge. Consumption of the burnt bagel often took up to three hours. Linus Gray was endlessly interrupted by phone calls from around the globe. He was a literary consigliere to an array of famous people. His Rolodex housed names like Greta Garbo, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger. “Binnie,” he would say, “explain communism to me! I’m going mad. I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and I don’t get these people. What do they want?” Binnie Togblatt was his secretary and advisor on all worldly matters. “Nu. The Berlin Wall fell nine years ago, and you’re worried about communists?”

The first year I worked there I walked to work each morning and home each evening. I was fortunate enough to live roughly in the same neighborhood as the shop. I was unfortunate enough to live with a bipolar alcoholic as a lover. Nonetheless, this was a felicitous time in my life. I read through endless quantities of literature. I drank prodigiously. The two of us lived like lobsters in a pot, clunking around our sixty square-foot studio, banging into each other like opposing armies clashing in someone else’s living room. We wreaked havoc. We overturned tables. She broke a mirror and threatened to slit her wrists. In the end we settled for verbal warfare. Worst of all, she hated sex.

One day Linus Gray plotzed into the shop in his blue pants suit, clutching a briefcase. He was just in time for his three o’clock bagel. I called up Krauthammer’s without awaiting orders. I tipped the delivery boy with a fiver and was bowed to. Linus Gray then called me into his office and, between bites of crunchy black Lender’s, pointed to a tall yellow sack in the corner. “Take that to Wing’s,” Binnie said, “on Tenth Avenue.” “Hurry back,” Linus Gray added, his mouth overflowing with buttered crumbs, “because today we’re short-staffed and I have an appointment with Edward Albee at eleven and I’ll need a taxi to take me over to his office on East…” Binnie stared at me, her face saying, Go now!

I went, schlepping half my body weight over my back. I crossed Times Square, stepping over the feet of the damned. Tickets were on sale for every conceivable show. Cats was closing the longest, most beloved run of any show in Broadway history. The Winter Garden was buzzing with people who didn’t want to go to their graves without having seen this historic schlock. Gray Line buses padded the avenues. The street smelled sweet and acidic, like a hot dog dredged through urine. When I reached Tenth Avenue I was sweating. A woman emptied the yellow sack with a smack of her hand, counted to a number in Chinese, tore off a sheet from her perforated notebook and shoved it in my face. “How much?” I blurted. “OK,” she smiled. I pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Her hands spoke volumes; perhaps it was Mencius, Confucius. She made the sign for “up.” I pulled out another twenty. She smiled, “OK! Tank you! Bye-bye!” I looked at the slip. “Thank you for your business,” it read. Heiroglyphs, pictograms, chicken scrawl. Binnie would scold me. She’d want figures, numbers in Arabic. How much did it cost? I studied the slip of paper, felt my pockets for change. Had I been robbed?

On the way back I slipped into Ho Jo’s for a lemonade, but ordered a Bloody Mary instead. I was hungry so I noshed on the celery stalk, swimming in Tabasco and vodka. Courtesy of Linus Gray and Midtown Book Retailers. If he could waste good money he didn’t have, so could I.

In front of the bookshop, the sidewalk was bustling. A hulking Brazilian with purple cheeks was haggling with a wiry black man. Hasidic women in expensive wigs pushed strollers full of plump babies. A palm tree in a shopping cart was being wheeled down the street. A school bus full of black hats pulled up, and the men filed out like children. A crushed falafel sandwich squatted on the stoop, flies licking tahini. Diamonds glazed the windows like a bakery full of priceless donuts. In the middle of all this, a bookstore. What was it doing here, amid all this toyu-voyu? Linus Gray was stepping into a cab when he spotted me. He tossed a stern eye like a knife, then sped away in a blur of banana yellow. I popped through the old wooden door, dusted of my arms. Binnie was standing there, lost in a thought. “That man will die of a heart attack before he’s eighty,” she waxed, sounding oddly reassuring.

My career as a poet was taking off. I was Wilbur Wright in 1905. My verses were no longer unpublishable. An obscure literary magazine published a few neo-Romantic sonnets I had scribbled under the influence. I had aped Auden, mimicked Merrill, stolen from Stevens. Unpublishable drivel, but you have to start somewhere. I was accomplished, I had done well. I could call mom for recognition. Soaring in self-confidence, my girlfriend remarked bitterly: “I bet you think you’re Delmore-fucking-Schwartz now.” She called me shithead and pretended to cry. I, too, shed a tiny tear. We broke up and made up and moved out and back in again. We drank like miners and fought like drunken peasants. We always made up because we were too spineless to break up. After three years of sexless benumbment, I left her.

That week Linus Gray took a plane to Lake Tahoe. His sister lay in the throes of an undetermined illness. His explicit instructions before leaving were: “Take messages!” He flung the heavy door open with a casual flourish, stepped out into the wilderness of 47th St., stopped traffic like Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, and disappeared into the strange, erotic dream of Manhattan like a fiery stag leaping over hills.

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